ABC News to Bring a Social Laugh Track to the Second Screen

On Saturday night, President Barack Obama will deliver a rousing speech to a room full of journalists at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C.  Audience members might reward his jokes with laughter or applause, their voices ringing through television speakers to the viewing audience at home. But will they laugh alone?

Today ABC News gave a preview of the Social Soundtracker: a high-concept application that mimics the function of the “laugh track” we’re used to hearing in sitcoms. The difference is that the reactions will come straight from the viewers in real time.

On Saturday, April 27, viewers will be able to click a button to laugh, gasp, applaud, boo, or “aw” on the second screen while they’re watching ABCnews.com’s live stream coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C.

The Social Soundtracker connects through Facebook to show audiences which of their friends are watching along. They’ll hear a recorded voice, not unlike a laugh track, that’s multiplied when enough people click on the same emoticon at the same time. Viewers can also push their reactions out to Twitter and Facebook to share what they’re watching with other friends.

Down the line, viewers may be able to watch a recorded event after the fact and catch up with friends who have already seen it. There may be new emoticons to click and individual clips to share, which brands might be able to work into an advertising opportunity — although the network has no immediate plans for that yet.

Currently, open social networks like Twitter and GetGlue capture second-screen reactions in the form of blog posts and comments. But these are few and far between — after the 2012 presidential debates, a Pew study revealed that only one third of the viewing audience followed the live broadcasts online and that these people represented only 5 percent of the viewing audience as a whole.

Will the option to simply click a button rather than craft a clever one-liner encourage more viewers to engage? It’s hard to say, but sites like BuzzFeed are already using emoticons to gauge reactions to news stories and list posts.

For Maya Baratz, head of new products at ABC News, moments like the Yankees singing “Sweet Caroline” to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings at Yankee Stadium are too special to miss by looking down at the keyboard. “Sharing pulls you away from that moment,” she said.

But spectators were voicing their opinions long before the arrival of smartphones and laptops. Said ABC News Digital senior vice president Joe Ruffolo, the Social Soundtracker is “a step in the direction of bridging digital experiences with real-life experiences.”

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