What’s going to save TV in a world of new media options? Why, collecting stickers, of course. Networks are rushing to partner with GetGlue, a Web service mostly used by TV fans to “check in” and discuss their favourite shows, which lets people on other social media platforms know what they’re watching. But one of its other benefits is that when you check into a show a certain number of times, you get a sticker representing the show—and once you collect enough virtual stickers, you can send in for a bunch of real stickers in the mail. “It is a bit of a status symbol, collecting various stickers for various programs,” explains Paul Burns of Shaw Media, which announced a GetGlue partnership in March to promote shows like the cult hit Lost Girl. “It’s like a virtual baseball card.”
GetGlue, whose membership was recently estimated at 1.5 million, wasn’t supposed to be primarily about TV. Its founder, Alex Iskold, says it was “imagined as a social network for entertainment, connecting people around TV, movies, and more.” But it quickly became clear that television was dominating the site, and Iskold now says “the main benefit of GetGlue as it is today is connecting people around their favourite programs.”
Why is TV the perfect medium for GetGlue? Maybe because unlike movies, where—in theory—people aren’t allowed to use the Internet, people often expect to do other things while watching TV. If we’re not washing dishes, we may want to talk about the show as it happens. “There’s an element of real-time water cooler, an element of sharing,” Burns says. Even users who don’t want to discuss a show in depth can use GetGlue to announce to the world that they’re regular viewers.
This kind of TV-focused media may be more fun for networks and studios than it is for viewers. Traditionally it’s been hard for companies to know how passionate a show’s online followers are: Iskold points out that if someone likes a show on Facebook, that’s just “a one-time declaration that you like something.” As GetGlue becomes bigger, networks may be able to measure how big a fan someone is by seeing how often they check in. “By checking into different shows week over week people can reveal their true TV affinity,” Iskold says. “ ‘I check in every Sunday on the dot,’ or, ‘I just checked in a few times’ are very different behaviours.” GetGlue also indicates what moments in a show are making the most impact with viewers; during the Mad Men premiere, check-ins spiked during the scene where Canadian actress Jessica Paré, who plays Don Draper’s wife, Megan, sang Zou Bisou Bisou at his 40th birthday party.
But the most tantalizing prospect for networks may be that services like GetGlue could get people in front of their TVs when shows air. Ever since the invention of the VCR, TV has been bleeding live viewers, who can watch their favourite shows any time they want. But many people try to watch shows when their online friends are watching them, so they can engage in real-time discussion. “There’s a ton of research out there suggesting that online conversation plays a massive role in driving TV viewership during the live broadcast,” Burns explains. Thanks to what Burns calls the real-time water cooler, GetGlue could bring Internet users back to TV. Dan Tavares of CBC Sports, whose Hockey Night in Canada was the first Canadian show to embrace GetGlue, says that there’s a hope that the site “could provide a younger audience.”
That’s why, as GetGlue’s FAQ is careful to note, “some stickers can only be unlocked by checking in on a specific day during a specific time.” Networks are hoping that if we’re rewarded for watching a show, we won’t wait to watch it. That means networks may have to think carefully about what kind of stickers will induce us to stick around for the show—sometimes through multiple episodes. “For Top Chef Canada, we’re sending out a sticker with a silhouette placeholder that gets updated every week with an image of the chefs who get eliminated every week,” Burns says. “It creates an incentive to collect all the chefs.” But some shows, like Hockey Night in Canada, offer simpler inducements: “As you checked in more often,” explains Tavares, “you could work your way up to getting the Don Cherry sticker.”