Startups Look for the Future of Social TV

Do acquisitions show maturity—or confusion?

With venture capital and investment dollars flowing in, social TV has become one of the hottest startup categories.

Now consolidation may be under way. Social TV startup Philo was just acquired by advertising company Local Response. Like a number of competitors, Philo offered a way for people to share what they're watching with friends by "checking-in" to TV shows, although Local Response chief executive Nihal Mehta told TechCrunch that Philo has actually shifted its attention away from becoming a consumer social network and toward its brand marketing services.

The deal follows Yahoo's acquisition of social TV startup IntoNow, as well as the emergence of a long list of apps (both from startups and larger companies) that offer some variant on the TV check-in. That's pretty impressive for a category that barely existed a year ago.

GetGlue CEO Alex Iskold said the recent activity is a sign that "the market is maturing." He also said it reflects a trend toward the "verticalization of social networking." In other words, the big opportunities for social startups are now for specific uses and audiences, rather than an all-purpose Facebook competitor. In addition to continued user growth, he predicted that the next year will bring more serious attempts at making money through advertising.

Iskold positioned GetGlue (whose investors include Union Square Ventures and Time Warner Investments) as the leader in the industry—and if GetGlue's claims of 1.4 million users and 9 million check-ins in July are accurate, he's probably right. (GetGlue isn't limited to TV because it allows users to check-in to movies, books, music, and more.) But can a startup stay at the top of this industry? Or does GetGlue's future lie inside a larger media or social networking company?

"That's a tough question for a company at any stage," Iskold said. "But our goal is to build the world's largest entertainment social network and to do it as an independent company."

Miso CEO Somrat Niyogi sees the situation as much more up for grabs—not surprising, perhaps, since his 200,000-person user base puts him well behind GetGlue's reported numbers.

"I don't think anyone in this space has fundamentally got it right," he said.

And yes, he's including Miso in that statement, too. Niyogi said that's why his Google Ventures-backed startup is trying to experiment with new features (such as reality TV voting) as quickly as it can. And that's also why he said it makes him "crazy" whenever he hears about a new TV check-in startup that's "not doing anything new."

"Is it just about the check-in?" Niyogi said. "If that's all you're doing, what happens if Facebook decides to build TV check-ins?"

So, if no one hasn't figured it out yet, why all the activity? Niyogi said it's because entrepreneurs believe (and all the data suggests) that devices like smartphones and tablets are going to build a huge "second-screen" audience for TV over the next few years.

"The key is making ad dollars reach consumers, and the second screen is the way to make it happen," Niyogi said. "Hopefully, we're the solution, but we still have a long way to go."