TikTok is launching on smart TVs in France, Germany and the UK as part of a play to move into people’s living rooms and diversify its audience.
The short-form video sharing platform has announced that a version of its app will be available from today on Android TV on models produced by Sony, Hisense, TCL, Skyworth, Sharp, Phillips, Xiaomi, Panasonic and Toshiba.
The move, which follows the December announcement of a TikTok app for Samsung smart TVs, will make watching social media’s viral stars just as easy as streaming the latest Netflix or Amazon Prime series. Sea shanties and songs from Ratatouille the Musical could sit right next to The Sopranos and Bridgerton – if you need TikTok blown up on the big screen. And that’s a big if.
People who log in via their TV will see content based on their previous preferences, while for those who choose not to log in, TikTok will provide curated videos from twelve of the most popular strands of content in the smartphone app. It’s a bold move for the social media giant which has driven much of the cultural conversation during lockdown – but a risky one too.
“You have this new dynamic of discovery and growth and pushing things into the mainstream, and you bring that to the very established behaviour of sitting down together on a chair or sofa around a shared screen, which has been a cherished part of family life,” says Rich Waterworth, TikTok’s managing director for the UK and Europe.
“When you bring those things together, it gets really exciting. You get this combination of niche internet trends which are now mainstream parts of culture, and you enable people to watch them together on the big screen.”
Industry experts say the move could be a big moment for TikTok, which is already growing faster than some of its major competitors. “With TikTok’s shareable content and restricted mode, it’s easy to turn the app into a family viewing experience,” says Fateha Begum, associate director for connected devices and media at Omdia Research.
That’s the rationale behind the move towards TV, says Waterworth. “One of the big trends we’ve seen over the last year is that not only is the audience broad, but people are often enjoying TikTok together, either as a whole family unit or with more than one person,” he explains. “Much more than this being about one particular age group, it’s reflecting that TikTok is often a shared experience.”
Omdia forecasts that use of Android TV on screens in France, Germany and the UK will double in the next five years, making it the second most popular operating system after Samsung’s Tizen. And user-generated video competitors like YouTube recorded record-breaking years in 2020 for time spent watching content on TVs, YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki said last month.
The impact on TikTok’s bottom line could also be significant, says Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism, a US creative agency. “TikTok’s move into TV hints at their advertising ambitions,” he says. Right now the perception is the app skews young. So to court advertisers and compete with the other leading social platforms TikTok will need to increase their reach, data, and demographics. Being on TV could help.
It could also help keep its creator base – who often seek opportunities in traditional TV and film – engaged and happy in the face of courtship from other copycat apps. It could even change the way we perceive user-generated content says Karyn Spencer, vice president at Whalar, an influencer marketing company. “This announcement pushes us to challenge our brains to value content in a more democratised fashion,” she says. “If it’s entertaining, if it connects with us emotionally, it’s more convenient to have the option to view films on phones and social media on TVs.”
It’s also part of a broader move to expand TikTok’s userbase. Leaked data reported on by Bloomberg, dating from the summer of 2020, shows 17 million – or one in four – Britons used TikTok every month. Four in ten were between the ages of 18 and 24, and the average user logged on for more than an hour a day. Those numbers are now likely much higher, and its demographics much broader. “TikTok has increased its userbase considerably in the past year,” says Begum. “While this skews towards younger age groups, we’re seeing unique users increase across all ages.”
The move into the living room could well be a sign of TikTok more overtly taking on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, but also the BBC and ITV. The BBC recently launched six official profiles on the app that have seen significant success, and ITV is the main home of many of TikTok’s recent TV adverts. “There’s a very harmonious relationship between TV and TikTok,” says Waterworth. “I think those partners will derive more value form their partnership with TikTok as we continue to provide experiences like this. It’s going to be mutually beneficial.”
Yet there are some concerns over the potential safety risks of moving TikTok’s content onto TVs. Child safety expert Eva Fog Noer says time will tell whether it’s a potentially beneficial development, bringing parents closer to their children’s media consumption and encouraging a proactive conversation about what they watch and why, or if it’ll push kids further into their bedrooms. “It has a potential for opening up the conversation about the use of the app in the living room, which is a much-needed thing in many families,” she says.
But it could push children to watch alone, too. Around 50 per cent of ten-year-olds own their own smartphone, according to Ofcom research, with 67 per cent having access to a smart TV. “Having yet another smart device to access any kind of social media, located in the children’s rooms, poses both opportunities and problems,” says Fog Noer.
Being on TV screens, which parents perceive as the home of vetted, verified content, is different to being on an opt-in app that requires downloading onto phones. “My concerns would be around the fact that a lot of parents aren’t tech-savvy and wouldn’t know their way around settings that restrict content,” says Alex Holmes, deputy CEO of The Diana Award, a child-focused charity. Technically, TikTok does not allow users under the age of 13 onto the app – and parents who may have barred their children from downloading it to their phones could be caught out by the new TV apps. “There’s also a perception now that TV is quite a safe bet for children,” says Holmes. “To add something like this may take parents by surprise – that that kind of content can be accessed so easily. They might not be aware of how to restrict that.”
“There’s a big difference between watching something on a 10” or a 40” screen,” says Fog Noer. “With the newly-added HD video support, the details will be much brighter and ‘in your face’ – perfect for DIY, but not for partial nudity or violence. They’re both something TikTok tries to suppress, but unfortunately seeps through the cracks anyway.”
Waterworth does not share those concerns, pointing to TikTok’s moderation technology and ranks of human workers taking down videos that violate its terms of service. “Broadly, the protection of the TV screen is based on that same moderation process – and that process works,” he says. “The content for the TV experience will be broadly like a pre-watershed experience” for those who use the smart TV app while logged out.
He also doesn’t believe the app’s move onto TV dilutes the core experience that has brought it hundreds of millions of regular users worldwide. “What we find with TikTok as an experience and community is it does continue to evolve and change,” he says. “That’s what makes it interesting and exciting. A new form factor in TV is part of that evolution. We need to keep developing and evolving TikTok to make it as exciting and fulfil the potential of its creator base.”
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