Watching a repeat of the future

David Low
5 min readDec 12, 2020
Kids watching cartoons on TV. Image by Victoria Borodinova via Pixabay.

I was asked in 2011 to talk for five minutes, with one slide entitled, “The Future” — something of a challenge, but also an opportunity. I could say anything and not be wrong; not for a while at least. The context was Social Media Week and a panel on social media’s effect on television; a specialist subject at the time.

In accidentally finding the script nearly a decade later, it’s hard to decide if the thoughts were close to the mark or out by a country mile.

It remains true that recommendations and discovery, across all media platforms, remain to be solved. iPlayer still recommends me shows in which I have zero interest or episodes I need to “continue”, after jumping off just before the credits.

We’ve had a decade of ‘network effects’, exponential growth in social networks and recommendation data being a part of our fabric. And yet nobody’s going to tell me the explosion of “box sets” or wasn’t driven primarily by friends and family talking as they always did. And a prediction that increased live TV viewing, or at least having a shared experience, would make a comeback was borne out by networks drip-feeding on-demand episodes. “Appointments to view” have changed slightly but remain, social media has made them more straightforward.

The one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb, in hindsight, is that television companies are best sticking to what they know: making television.

Regardless, here is the unedited script to see how crazy it was (as some said at the time). The talk took place in September 2011, on behalf of STV, for reference.

Not so long ago David Cameron told Tony Blair, “you were the future once”. It’s something people often say about mass-market television in the digital age.

But for a company with 54 years of broadcasting history, a distinct audience and footprint, and a considerable investment in some of the country’s most significant programmes, it should come as no surprise that the future is — indeed — television.

And during Social Media Week, it should also come as no surprise that social media has become a hugely important driver in building and maintaining those audiences over time.

So this leads us to the concept of “Social TV”. For the closing few moments, we’ll take a quick look at what that is and where it’s going.

TV is already a social, or sociable, experience. Social media enhances that and makes viewing a lot more communal.

25% of the global audience for the Eurovision Song Contest were chatting online during the show, for example. Last weekend The X Factor produced 13,000 tweets per hour. Downton Abbey was the most discussed show in social media in the previous few days.

People want to talk about TV, and social media acts as the conduit. The second screen, with laptops and tablets accompanying TV sets, allows for an instant return path where users take part in the programming. We can make use of live feedback, instant polls, feed questions live to presenters and allow participation in ways that go well beyond calling 01 811 8055 to talk to Swap Shop.

The challenge for broadcasters is to harness that activity and use it to enable discovery and recommendation of our programmes.

We are at the forefront of developing recommendation systems for our users. With modern providers of TV guide and recommendation technology, we are working on a TV Guide that doesn’t merely list programmes in their given slots; it highlights which programmes are followed by your friends, providing instant, informed discovery of new content.

By plugging that data into our sites, STV Player, for example, we can recommend programmes you are more likely to watch. It’s not as simple as saying Coronation Street is a soap, so you’ll like all soaps; the recommendation engine compares up to 300 pieces of metadata, plus your social network’s preferences and shows you already follow, to come up with things you’re likely to view.

We can show you in near real-time, what your friends have been watching. But what are they watching next?

Social media, particularly Facebook, allows us to create appointments to view, driving discovery differently. A simple Facebook calendar event for True Blood’s season preview in the States, led many users to unlock an exclusive season preview at a fixed time — eventually seen by nearly 3 million people.

The concept of check-ins will be nothing new in social media terms — there were over 50 check-ins last week alone amongst friends on Facebook feed alone. But checking-in to a TV show, as opposed to a place or an event, has become big business.

TV Guide in the States opened up a check-in system linked to Facebook, so people could discover and share as they browsed the shows — this now generates 20,000 check-ins per day and 4 million this year since launch last autumn. The data garnered from these check-ins has allowed them to sell 45 new sponsors.

However, the most exciting concept is that increasing numbers of users are watching to live TV as opposed to time-shifting or video-on-demand, so the social media discussion doesn’t act as a spoiler. Like the living room of the 1960s and 70s with a few million people sitting at the telly.

But if you can check in on Facebook, why can’t you watch and share the content there? Facebook has almost become a web browser to many users — their web browsing centres around the Facebook network. We are making use of this concept to let viewers watch STV Player content within the Facebook environment — where they can instantly watch, comment and share the content seamlessly.

Facebook — and Twitter is going in the same direction — acts as another vast platform for us to deliver content.

All of this work is also a way to unlock data on users and their preferences. As a commercial broadcaster, we are duty-bound to deliver products which are attractive to advertisers and sponsors. Ultimately by enriching the user experience, we create targeted channels where advertising becomes worthwhile and relevant.

And as long as we continue to drive that commercial environment in ways that also enrich the user experience, returning to the theme of this segment, broadcasters will indeed have a long and prosperous future to come.



David Low

CEO, The List. Man of many employers; some of them happy. Board member, advisor, small investor and mentor.