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MTV's The Hills are alive... with the sound of audience participation

Following the trials and tribulations of a bunch of privileged Californians might be mystifying to some, but as every self-respecting teenage girl knows, MTV?? The Hills is something of a phenomenon. Now MTV has launched Backchannel, a ??ulti-player social game?to play online while watching the latest episode. Its premise is simple but ambitious: to make watching live television meaningful in the era of DVR and TIVO.

Stats cite that millennials, Gen Y or whatever you want to call them, like to multi-task their entertainment, simultaneously surfing the Internet, watching TV and chatting on the phone. Backchannel attempts to center that activity on the TV and give those watching the show an online forum in which to comment pithily in real time. So, while watching the show, you get to comment on LC’s hair do, her troubled relationship with Audrina, or how much you hate Spencer — and read others’ live comments, too. Voting on the comments means players win points (the text literally expands on the screen to reflect a tag’s popularity), so the onus is on being funny, pertinent or just plain snarky. In the words of MTV Digital’s Senior VP and General Manager, Dan Hart, this is a new world: “competitive chat.”

In fact, it's an obvious extension of the current world of online chat. Trawl any message board or forum, especially those with a pop culture twist, and you'll quickly see both the networking and competitive elements of the conversation. But while this can often happen at dizzying speed, there's also often a lag between a post and a reply. MTV's strategy unites people around the real time broadcast of a particular program (visit the site when The Hills is not playing on MTV and you'll simply see a clock, counting down to the start of the next episode and the next game.)

With limited knowledge of The Hills and its characters (honest), I played one round of the show, and I have to say it was pretty compelling. Designed by social gaming and digital media specialists Area/Code there's a clear sense of interaction and play here. It’s well organized too: Only eight to ten people can write comments at any given time, which means that the level of conversation is fast-paced but not overwhelming (though sometimes frustrating when you're prevented from writing a killer tag.) And there's a limit of around 100 people per chat room so you're guaranteed your moment in the tagging spotlight. And while some of the comments that came up on screen were spectacularly banal, most were fairly well taken and many were laugh-out-loud funny. I even adapted quite well to the task of monitoring two screens at the same time.

Interestingly, the game’s not over when the credits roll. Instead, players get a recap of what just happened, with tags crunched into various categories. “Soulmates” are other players who liked the same tags you did, while “Opposites” liked different tags altogether. “Fans” liked your tags and “Favorites” are those whose tags you regularly clicked on. Players can then click on any other user to drill down, read the person’s MTV community profile and –- maybe -– strike up a new online relationship.

Even more compelling from a business perspective is the fact that MTV can use the data itself to monitor the impact of its programming. Which storylines really strike a chord? Which characters leave watchers cold? What gets everyone a-buzzing? MTV now has a wealth of user-generated metadata at its fingertips that it could use to influence its own programming. And the game plays through the breaks, too, meaning that players can also comment on the advertising. In fact, some of the ads that aired when I was playing provoked the strongest reactions. Given that the information is already sortable through the game’s own design, an advertiser could access a ton of potentially fascinating reaction from its target audience.

For now, MTV isn’t promising that (there are surely confidentiality issues here.) Nor does it want to give any sense of the metrics it’s seeking in order to gauge whether this is a strategy it’ll roll out elsewhere (though Hart did mention that Paris Hilton’s show will probably be next.) Instead, they’re taking more of a wait and see approach, putting Backchannel out there to see what happens. “You create a canvas and millions of people come and take it in directions that are cleverer than you even thought,” says a hopeful Hart.

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