Once the global leader in youth culture, MTV's attempts to address the social-networking craze have seemed a little puzzling sometimes (the Twittering Moon Man?) But now we've seen another piece of the entertainment brand's puzzle: Backchannel, a play-while-you watch game that's one part chat room, one part Digg, and one part Mystery Science Theater with a Mean Girls twist.
It's debuting on Monday night with that evening's episode of wildly popular reality-soap The Hills.
Here's how Backchannel works: Watch the show (for now, only The Hills is on Backchannel, but later this fall it will be accompanying the network's new reality show about Paris Hilton picking a new best friend), join a "room" of other viewers while you're watching, and offer snarky or insightful one-liners that appear on the screen in a sort of tag cloud. Click on the ones you like, and they'll accumulate points. You'll receive points from the votes on your own one-liners, as well as submissions you voted on that became especially popular. And, yes, it extends through commercials, too.
In a press conference Wednesday, MTV's digital team referred to Backchannel, developed by New York-based gaming firm Area/Code, as "competitive chat." When you think about it, it's a little bit like competitive Twittering.
Executives said the formation of the game was heavily influenced by MTV's video game Rock Band, which added a new dimension to many bands and artists that were well over 20 years past their heyday.
"Something that arguably has diminishing value over time actually becomes more valuable over time," Area/Code's Kevin Slavin explained. "If Rock Band is doing that for music, what can do that for television?"
But Backchannel has bigger implications for what MTV has in store when it comes to social networking. Profiles for Backchannel are compatible with Flux, the social platform that MTV parent company Viacom created from its acquisition of start-up Tagworld and debuted last year. Popular comments from Backchannel, aggregated on the Web site, will also be displayed on reruns of the show, much like MTV's sister channel VH1's Pop Up Video show from the 1990s.
Additionally, while current incentives for playing are limited to street cred and "badges" on your profile, MTV may be stepping this up a notch. Executives hinted during the press conference that down the road, accumulated gaming points may become a virtual currency that can be exchanged for real prizes--memorabilia, products featured on the show, or whatever.
Something like Backchannel clearly isn't applicable to shows with a "deep" fandom like Lost or Heroes, but I'll admit it--it's perfect for trashing Heidi's plastic surgery, Whitney's weird outfits, and Audrina's perpetually unsound grammar. Brush up on your "OMG" and "fugly," and get ready to unleash your inner Perez Hilton.