Social TV: Does the Gaming Platform "Steam" Suggest a New Model for Monetizing Cult and Niche Films?

Some of the country's biggest TV station groups are set to launch what they hope will be a game-changing social TV initiative in 2012.

Unfortunately, a key element of fan culture - the opportunity to connect with your favorite performers and creators - has been overlooked in the materials that I have seen about this latest social TV initiative.

This blogpost proposes a new "social TV" business based on fan interaction with stars.

First: What is "social TV?"

At its most basic, a social TV platform allows users to communicate with other fans watching the same program. More sophisticated versions of social TV also provide access to bonus features (e.g., additional content) and promotional opportunities related to the programs.

While the opportunity to chat with the principals of your favorite show could (obviously?) be part of the promotional materials offered by a new social TV platform - the big networks haven't put that unique selling proposition at the center of their pitch. Instead, the emphasis seems to be on simply merging TV shows with social media.

Specifically, according to a November 15th, 2011 article in the Hollywood Reporter, 10 big broadcast groups with 201 stations, including ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CW and WB affiliates in markets that cover 76 million U.S. homes, have entered into a deal with ConnecTV, a real-time social network custom-built for TV viewers (see video above of Ian Aaron of ConnecTV speaking at the Social TV Summit in NY on Nov. 16th, 2011).

Created by business people who are apparently locked into Old World marketing and sales, the latest social TV plan seems to be about alerting the user to what social media friends are watching and allowing them to interact. Ultimately the (admirable but limited?) goal of ConnectTV seems to be to simply merge the TV experience with social media.

While ConnecTV should work, I think that a huge opportunity is being missed: The chance to chat with the performers and authors of your favorite show.

The dream of talking back to your TV is not new. There have been a number of well-publicized experiments with interactive TV, dating back to the 1970s. But the moment for a new kind of social TV - where users actually interact with heart-throbs and programming in new ways - seems finally to be at hand.

Research by Thinkbox suggests that close to half (44%) of UK TV viewers already are watching TV while chatting on social media - so clearly the audience has no problem multitasking while absorbing TV. But the big media companies are reacting to this "two-screen phenomenon" simply by pursuing technology that promises an integration of the two separate platforms - chatting and sharing reactions with social media friends while viewing TV. While the ConnecTV experience may be seamless - the real benefit over existing two screen solutions may not be significant.

For me, the New World opportunity lies in creating a platform where the user really interacts with the players and crew (not just their online friends - and certainly not just a new channel for intrusive suggestions from marketers based on data-mining).

While ConnecTV is apparently focused on the technological challenges of meshing social media with content from the major TV networks and increasing revenue for advertisers, I believe the unique selling proposition lies elsewhere. My idea involves providing something that fans would really pay for: The chance to interact with their idols.

How would it work? And is the technology too complicated for a start-up to even touch?

The business model I an envisioning might be built on a service that is already familiar in the gaming community: Steam.

Steam is currently the most popular electronic platform for distributing games.

There are no monthly fees to use Steam or to download purchased games. Instead, users create a free account and download what is known as the "core." Then users of Steam get access to some free content, but they can also purchase premium content (games), with the ability to interact with other users.

The idea that I am proposing is that a distributor of motion pictures could make a business based on a platform like Steam's that offers films and contact with performers and key creatives. In particular, my new service would offer premium content for a fervent niche following (e.g., anime, karate, children's content, horror, etc.) and, in addition to that premium content, the service would offer realtime access to the people behind the films - using the social media aspects of a service like Steam (or ConnecTV).

To understand my proposal, let's first look at how Steam works.

A Steam user starts by downloading a "core." After that, users can purchase and download any content they choose (in the case of Steam, from a library of games - but in the case of a new motion picture platform, from a library of films). The content (games) is played while logged into Steam.

How would the Steam model work for films?

Electronic distribution makes Steam more convenient than going to a store (even an online store) and games on Steam can be cheaper than elsewhere. Almost every month Steam lets users try out premium content for free for a weekend.

Just as Steam offers premium content for free at scheduled times, my new film platform would offer exclusive access to actors and crew at set times.

What other functionality could filmmakers adapt from Steam that would be of interest to film fans?

Steam users can automatically store game saves (the system remembers where you left off). This function, remembering where you left off - and where you've commented or made notes - would be useful for film fans.

In addition, users can store related custom files to Steam's cloud service. This functionality - storing related content that the user has found online - could really work for film fans.

But the key functionality of Steam for my new service is built-in voice chat and instant messenger.

This chat and message functionality is how fans could interact with other fans and their idols.

In summary, I am proposing a subscription service built around:

1) access to a library of film content (both free and paid) and

2) offering fans exclusive access to other fans and,

3) at set times, access to key players in their favorite films.

I am suggesting that the gaming platform of Steam could be used to build out a custom film service, that gives a niche film audience an exclusive opportunity for chatting with each other and their favorite stars.

I think creating such a service (built on an existing platform like Steam) that links a niche film audience to their community - including the leaders - and their favorite content is a viable idea. What do you think?

Thanks to Ross Pruden who first got me thinking about Steam as a platform for film.

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