The Return of Appointment Television

For many years, as DVR and online streaming have taken over a big portion of television consumption, we have increasingly said goodbye to the notion of "appointment television" (watching TV shows when they originally air on broadcast). There are a few exceptions of course, mainly sports and news, but for the most part at this point the tech savvy consider television something we can consume when and where we want.

Recently, however, I am noticing myself more interested in catching the initial broadcast (the appointment) of my favorite shows. And it's not because I can't get the video elsewhere, it's because increasingly the first view is a richer, more entertaining experience. Broadcast companies and brand partners are learning how to add unique value for those who participate in the original airing of a new show/episode airing. This is great for us because we are getting options for "premium experiences" if we choose, and great for them because they get more eyeballs on their most valuable asset: the live (mostly non-skippable) broadcast. So how is this transition back to appointment television happening? Here are a few ways:

1. Rewards
Broadcast companies are partnering with the rising crop of "entertainment check-in" companies like GetGlue and Miso to provide tangible ad intangible rewards for people who watch a show while it's airing and "check-in." The rewards so far have been anything from virtual badges to discounts on show memorabilia.  Showtime, for example, not only rewards viewers with badges for popular shows like Californication, but also gives fans a chance to win free DVD's if they check-in at least 10 times during a live airing.  Even Foursquare, which typically focuses on real-world locations, is getting in on the action.  During the Super Bowl Foursquare and the NFL partnered to offer team memorabilia discounts to people who checked-in with their favorite team during the Super Bowl.

Even more interesting might be IntoNow, a newer entrant into the social TV app marketplace.  IntoNow is actually able to check-in for viewers automatically based on the video it hears being played in the background.  Their ability to recognize audio footprints isn't just a cool trick, it also helps verify that a user is really watching shows, rather than just checking in for the reward.  IntoNow jumped quickly into the partnership game, linking up with MTV for the a promotion around the premiere of Jersey Shore.

2. Access
Another way shows are enhancing the viewing experience is launching additional content available through computer or iPad that is available during the show.  One breakthrough example of this is from a surprising source: Grey's Anatomy.  The Grey's Anatomy iPad app releases interactive content in real-time while the show is airing.  The application uses Nielsen audio foot-printing to sync content with the show as it's airing. This type of second-screen experience is also starting to show up in theaters.  Best Buy developed an iPhone app for movie Despicable Me that delivered special content to users on their iPhone during the movie, again triggered by audio cues.

The 2011 Oscars also pushed the boundaries of access to additional content through their iPad app Oscars Back Stage Pass.  The Oscars app actually provided a before, during and after experience via second screen.  Before the show the app delivered special interviews and behind-the-scenes clips.  Once the Oscars started airing on TV the app enabled viewers to watch additional camera angles of the Red Carpet and from inside the awards theater.  In addition to the iPad app, Oscars host James Franco actually live-tweeted from on stage.  This gave viewers an unusual first-hand perspective right from on-stage.  Content like Twitter streams can be viewed later on, but it's most compelling during the original viewing as it happens in real-time.

3. Community
The third, and perhaps most important, way live television is becoming more compelling is the rich social media driven community that builds around the broadcast.  Increasingly television watchers are sitting in front of the TV with Twitter or Facebook loaded on another device in front of them.  As the show progresses they are taking to social networks to voice their opinion and talk about the show with other fans.  This experience is usually not even tied to the broadcast company, but shows are benefiting from this new real-time water cooler.  This live community makes shows more fun to watch when they're happening, and can generate a feeling of "missing out" when you have to watch later.  In fact, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone mentioned in a recent interview that Twitter is driving "let's watch it when it's on" behavior.

In addition to fans taking to the Internet themselves, some shows are beginning to experiment with leading the community conversation by having cast members live-tweet during the airing of new episodes.  Fox show Fringe, for example, announces on their website which cast members will be tweeting during the next episode.  Always Sunny in Philadelphia, on the other hand, doesn't have cast members tweeting but does host the real-time social conversation right on their own show community page during new episodes.

It's a surprising turnaround in a time when disaggregation and on-demand are transforming media, but 2011 just might be the return to appointment television.  Incentivized by rewards, access and community viewers are starting to prioritize watching the original real-time broadcast for a better viewing experience.  This trend is not only benefiting shows and fans, it also means big returns for brands.  For one, live-viewing helps ensure viewership of commercial spots.  What I hope to see, however, is smart brands finding ways to join relevant conversations and provide additive content as participants in the viewership experience.  This could lead to a stronger, more valuable relationship with audiences down the line.

For additional thoughts on this topic, check out Ford's Social Media Director Scott Monty, who published a similar article about "Must See Twitter" while I was drafting this.