People have long been aware that, during big TV moments—epic sports contests or the finale of Lost, for example—the Twittersphere rapidly fills up with TV-related hashtags. Last week Google Ventures invested in Miso, a social TV app that allows users to comment on their TV shows as they happen. Miso, however, is not the only fish in the social TV app sea. As well as Comcast's Tunerfish, there is Starling, a startup that launched back in April at MIPtv in Cannes, whose aim is "enhancing the real-time experience" of watching television, according to its President of the Americas, Kenny Miller.
Last month's launch of Google TV at the I/O conference is bringing the media of Internet and the television even closer, so one could argue that there is little point in a separate social media app that covers the TV experience to second screens. However, simultaneous TV and Internet use is on the rise, and it is this that Starling hopes to capitalize on.
Miller spent 17 years at MTV Networks (Viacom) and his partners in the venture include Starling's president, Kevin Slavin, co-founder of gaming company, area/code, and CEO Declan Caulfield, a former TV producer of tentpole events whose credits include the Eurovision Song Contest (200 million viewers back in the mid-'90s, a respectable 120 million last weekend).
"In the short term—the next two years—we think that most people will be watching TV in the good old fashioned way," says Miller. "The more interesting platforms to work on are not necessarily set-top boxes or smart TVs, but mobile and Web connections that regular people can use around the majority of their television watching. So, in time, Google TV will be interesting, but in the short term, the world is more similar to the way it used to be than the way it's going to be."
Although social TV apps are usually likened to location-based apps such as Foursquare, Miller doesn't see it that way. "For us, it's all about the gameplay, the experience while you're watching together. Some of the people in the [social TV app] space are taking very literally the idea of Foursquare for TV, and watching a TV show with friends is very different to checking into a restaurant or coffee shop." Slavin is more succinct. "There are a couple of years of location-based apps that didn't work, but what Foursquare brought to the table was a very savvy understanding of what gets people to engage with the system. That motivation is not the checking in, it's to do with the game design inside Foursquare, and it's not something that translates to television. It is, however, a clear indication that what motivates people to use one system or another is all to do with game mechanics, and these are the types we're most familiar with."
Unlike both Tunerfish and Miso, which have both launched in beta, Starling is looking at a hard launch around August or September this year. Explains Caulfield: "I'm coming from being a TV producer, and that's how I think you start doing something. You unveil a show and so that's the way we think about opening it up. We don't think about doing betas, we think of it arriving. It will be like a TV event."
And it is their experience is television that the Starling team are relying on to distinguish their product. "TV drives social media more than social media drives TV, so the relationships with the networks and producers and understanding the way that the business of TV works, that's our special sauce," says Miller. "For us, it's important to launch with the right partners and the right product that's been tested, rather than building a quick product and putting it out there. It has to have a quality that deserves to sit side by side with television."
Starling's early access program members include Fremantle—home of Pop Idol—and JWT. "The most valuable viewer to a TV network is the live viewer," says Miller. "As people move into on-demand, there's more ad-skipping. You should watch live because it's more fun to watch with your friends. It has more appeal, and the potential partners we've spoken to so far have been like, 'Yes, finally, a technology that is helping us cement the part of our business that is the strongest."
But are they making the mistake of trying to please the TV networks rather than the viewers? "It's impossible to get people focused on TV without being focused on the users," says Miller. "If we're successful, there will be more people getting more enjoyment out of their TV watching. That's what we're driving to. A deeper engagement in front of the TV, that's the goal, but doing that by giving more value to the audience by connecting them to their friends and giving them an augmented experience is the strategy."
As more people turn to watching TV on demand, the concept of families huddling round the box at a given time seems more and more remote, but Starling is very much aware of that. "In time, an on-demand component is something that's on our roadmap, but it's not where we're going to start because, if it's worth watching, it's worth watching together, and big event TV is where we think it's going to be strong."
The startup's name—watch its inspiration here—certainly makes one think of Twitter—if not of Silence of the Lambs. How can Starling wrest people from tweeting to swooping? "What Twitter has been good at," says Slavin, "is getting a lot of people excited and connected to talk about the media that they love. What it hasn't been good at is how to structure the conversations so that they're the most meaningful to everyone that's in it. Following Eurovision, which hashtag do you follow. Is it a country, or a network, or an artist? What's the best way of understanding what's going on there? It doesn't negate Twitter, it should amplify it."
Comcast's runner and rider for the social TV race is Tunerfish. The fact that Comcast has both distribution and content sewn up should strike fear into the hearts of its rivals, shouldn't it? "Having spent 17 years inside Viacom, the thing that's different about the world today is that the audience has many options and they can pick what works the best for them," says Miller. "Comcast has a lot of things that it needs to work on, and we're very focused on this one thing. We're small and very nimble, and you can see how much things have grown in certain segments of the visual media that being big today isn't necessarily an advantage in being big tomorrow."
Starling's engineering base works out of Stockholm—it comes from the telco world—and the content and UI is being developed in NY. Its lightbulb moment, says Slavin, was "looking at what is happening with social networks and realizing we've been trying to connect the audience in all these different ways, and it turns out the audience is already connected. Now the question is, how to capitalize on it and make it as meaningful and rewarding as possible."