History of Social Television

When I first published my article on Tweeting while watching TV, social television wasn’t exactly a hot trend. Given the delay of academic publishing, I am so thankful I published my article (data was collected in 2009) in early 2011 because everyone’s doing the same analysis now by pairing Twitter data with television content: Twitter apparently just released on report on social TV, where one of the graphs in this report shows how Tweet volume increased during commercial breaks.

Companies are increasingly using social media data to gauge people’s involvement and sentiment. Last December, Twitter partnered with Nielson to figure out audience size via Tweet volume. Recently, at CES, companies showed off social television systems. It will be interesting to see how well these do, because in the past, commercial social TVs did not do very well.

Overview of social television systems

Studies conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s that examined the social aspects of television defined social television as a technical construct — a machine that facilitates interactivity. The studies were mainly based on experiments conducted in lab settings with prototypes that were created for the purpose of experimentation. Companies and academic institutes created their own interactive television systems; some of which include 2BeOn at the University of Aveiro, Amigo TV at Alcatel, Media Center Buddies at Microsoft Labs, ConnecTV at TNO , and STV at MotorolaNone of the systems used in these experiments are available to the public.



A remote for Qube. Click to enlarge

One of the reasons researchers created these hypothetical settings was due to the fact that interactive features embedded into television sets have not been commercially successful. For a long time, companies tried to tie in interactive features to the medium itself and failed. Time Warner experimented and failed in the 1970s with an interactive cable system called Qube. 

Here is a link to a special report about Qube, which describes Qube as an “interactive hardware and software system using bi-directional cable television technology as its video and data distribution network.” They expected Qube to have a profound effect on the lives of American families; unfortunately, it did not.

Advertisement for Qube

Advertisement for Qube


In 1980, Zenith launched Spacephone (Wikipedia link), a high–end television model that enabled users to talk on the telephone through their television set. Users could make phone calls with their remote control and watch television while talking, but the product was not successful and discontinued after a few years.

An ad in the The Evening Independent - Dec 11, 1981

An newspaper ad in “The Evening Independent” – Dec 11, 1981


An advertisement for AOLTV. Click to enlarge.

An advertisement for AOLTV. Click to enlarge.

America On–Line (AOL) launched AOLTV in 2000, which enabled users to surf the Internet, read e–mail, and chat while watching television on the same screen. The service, however fell off the market in 2002 due to lack of consumer interest.

Although early efforts at creating interactive television sets were made in the United States, commercial interactive television viewing services started gaining momentum at the turn of the century in Asia and Europe along with mainstream adoption of the Internet, blossoming in countries that quickly achieved nationwide broadband coverage. In Europe, many countries launched SMS TV Chat around 2000. This service allowed people to chat like they would in an online chat room using their cell phones to post messages; the messages would then appear on the television set. The service was hugely popular, although it was flawed in that the messages were displayed in the same interface as the program being broadcast — if the volume of messages went up, it would be difficult to view the actual program.


In the United States, commercial interactive TV services did not catch on until very recently. In 2006, ABC.com was the first network Web site to offer full–length episodes online for free, to be followed quickly by other networks such as CBS, Fox, and joint ventures such as Hulu. These services enabled viewers to comment on programs while they were watching them. Although television discussion forums had existed for a long time on the Internet, these sites were unique in that the discussion could take place on the same page as the video.

In 2009, networks began to support live streaming services and synchronous messaging. The U.S. Open, for example hosted live videos of the tournament on its Web site for the first time in 2009. Viewers could watch the video and engage in live chatting. In late 2009, TV.com introduced chatting services so that people watching the same program can engage in synchronous messaging.


In 2012, social television received a huge boost, but not because of social functions embedded into TV. Rather, it the near-synchronous response of social media to live events, the best example being the London Olympics. BBC reported that it was the “first true social media Olympics” especially because breaking news was occurring via Twitter. (Here is another report by the NYT). Aiding the rise of Twitter for the 2012 Olympics was the fact that NBC, which was the sole broadcaster of the Olympics in the US, did not provide live streaming. It was quite common, traditionally, to delay broadcasting of international sports events due to time zone differences, but with social media on the rise, people had little patience to wait. #nbcfail was a common hashtag on Twitter.

In 2013, Samsung and Panasonic both announced “smart” televisions that re-visit the social television concept. The biggest departure from previous social television systems is that instead of trying to create a unique communication platform within their television, they tried to marry existing social media content with their displays, which I think was a smart move. Here is a Mashable article about the Samsung social TV.

Samsung's Smart TV

Samsung’s Smart TV is loaded with apps and can be “upgraded”


One response to “History of Social Television

  1. Pingback: Social Media – My View on – Social TV | Jo Ann Fitzgerald's Professional IT Blog·

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