Baby steps: why TV hasn’t harnessed the power of the social web

Over the last year or so, TV development teams have been panicking about how to tap into the popularity of facebook, myspace and youtube. After all, this is where young people are spending their time, preferring the internet to the passive experience of watching TV.

Unfortunately most of the attempts to develop 360 formats (as they have become known) rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of the social web. Almost as bad, in their rush to integrate online and broadcast technologies, TV execs are forgetting their strengths as professional programme makers.

A good example is Lily Allen’s new BBC3 format, described in today’s Media Guardian:


“BBC3 is grooming singer Lily Allen as one of its key faces after signing her up to front an entertainment show.

Lily Allen and Friends, which is set to air early next year, will be based on the social networking phenomenon that helped launch her career.

Viewers will shape the show online by becoming her virtual friends and contributing to topical discussions, putting questions to guests and even presenting parts of the show.”

TV commissioners should not forget that what draws people to TV shows is professional casting, editing and formatting. After all, if you want to watch niche amateur experimentation you can find it on youtube, if you want to engage in topical discussion, you can do it on, and if you want virtual friends, you can collect them on facebook. Do I want to go on Lily’s website to discover new bands, and present part of her TV show? No – those functions are already provided far better elsewhere online, and TV shows will find it almost impossible to compete.

I still think that the greatest innovations in TV will come from new technologies. However, such progress will only come when producers start inventing amazing websites (with the potential for TV spin offs), rather than tagging poor imitations of successful websites onto old TV formats. What draws people to social media is that it offers them something genuinely useful, whether it be the ability to make friends, speak to the world, or buy and sell.

Imagine, for example that a bright spark at the BBC comes up with the idea for a website called ‘Friends Reunited’ – a website where we allow anyone to find their old school friends. The website is launched, and is immediately flooded with new members, keen to stroll down memory lane. But it doesn’t stop there – because in making the website the BBC has created a treasure trove of great TV and radio content. Cameras can follow old high school sweet hearts who are reuniting for the first time, and they can invite a celebrity to embark on their own journey using the website site in front of the cameras, as a new way to do a celebrity biography…

Of course, the concept of Friends Reunited has been and gone, but it seems to me that this is the approach that TV people should be taking. They should create websites that people genuinely want to use – by no means an easy proposition, but certainly a creatively and financially lucrative one.