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TikTok TV: ByteDance makes its move for the living room

ByteDance wants to bring TikTok to smart TVs, but experts say it won't be easy.

A smart TV

TikTok's foray into the smart TV world began close to a year ago.

Photo: Samsung

TikTok is getting ready to embrace the living room: The social media giant began experimenting with apps for a variety of smart TV platforms in recent months, offering users access to both their personal feeds as well as new, curated experiences.

These apps could help TikTok both broaden its audience and tap into lucrative online TV ad dollars. New devices could also be a boon to creators, help them experiment with new formats, and perhaps even aid the production of TikTok content. However, the jump to the bigger screen poses a number of challenges for a service that's thus far been synonymous with mobile, short-form entertainment.

TikTok's foray into the smart TV world began close to a year ago with an app for Amazon's Fire TV devices that is called "More on TikTok." That embrace of TVs was informed by existing behaviors of TikTok users, according to the company's U.S. head of product, Sean Kim.

"When people share their favorite TikTok videos with friends or family, they turn solo viewing into a shared, communal experience," he told Protocol via email. "With TikTok on TVs, we're bringing traditionally mobile-first content to the biggest screen in the home, giving users the opportunity to gather around TVs to enjoy [...] TikTok, together."

However, "More on TikTok" was just a modest first step. The app simply provides a curated collection of popular videos, with no option to log in and access personal feeds. That didn't go over well with everyone. The app's current average rating on Amazon's app store is 3.5 stars; a whopping 27% of users gave it just one star.

Undeterred, TikTok launched a more full-fledged app on Samsung smart TVs in December, followed by an app for Android TV devices in February; both apps combine personal feeds with curated collections. The apps are thus far only available in select European countries, but an expansion to other markets and devices is in the works, according to a TikTok spokesperson.

"We're excited to see how creators engage their unique TV audiences and how viewers bond with one another through the experience of co-viewing TikTok content," Kim said.

TikTok is facing a number of obstacles as it expands to bigger screens. The most obvious one is that all video on TikTok is vertical, which doesn't translate well to TVs. Navigation is another major challenge, as the TV remote is an imperfect replacement for the type of scrolling available on mobile screens. "Mobile is hyper fast," said designer Sanjiv Sirpal, who previously worked on mobile and TV user interfaces for companies like Hisense and Flextronics. "Having to juggle the remote will be a bit of a pain."

Aside from these technical challenges, there's also the question of whether people even want to watch TikTok in the living room, surrounded by family. "Couples might be in for a shock if they peered over each other's feeds," Sirpal said. A solution may lie in new story formats specifically designed for bigger screens, he suggested.

There are some examples for mobile-centric video services succeeding on TVs. For YouTube in particular, bigger screens have become a massive growth engine. In the U.S. alone, more than 120 million people watched YouTube on their TVs in December, according to YouTube Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan. A quarter of those viewers watched almost all of their YouTube videos on TV.

This has been a big boon for YouTube's advertising revenue, as TV-based advertising typically sells for a premium. In Q1, Google generated a whopping $6 billion with ads on YouTube.

Replicating that success story won't be easy for TikTok, said former Viacom executive Andrew Rosen, who now authors Parqor, an industry newsletter. "TikTok and YouTube are two very different consumption models, most distinguished by TikTok's maximum content length of one minute," Rosen said. Google has also had a lot more time to innovate in the living room, he added. "YouTube has been on Smart TVs for longer than TikTok has been in the marketplace."

It's also still unclear whether the things that make TikTok special even work on TV. TikTok videos aren't just short and vertical, they also frequently elicit a response from viewers. "It is two-way, interactive consumption," Rosen said. "TVs offer one-way, non-interactive consumption, so it is less clear why that would be valuable to TikTok users at scale."

At least on that front, TikTok may get some help from consumer electronics companies looking to make TVs more interactive. This spring, Chinese hardware maker Mecool unveiled an Android TV-based streaming device that comes with an integrated camera. In addition to touting its video-calling capabilities, Mecool also specifically positions the device as a tool for TikTok creators, complete with a dedicated TikTok button on its remote control. But so far, Mecool has to run the mobile app version of TikTok on its device, as the company's smart TV apps don't support video uploads yet.

Asked about plans to embrace new device types, Kim remained noncommittal. "We're always looking for ways to add value to TikTok viewing experiences, and we'll continue exploring opportunities to make [the service] more easy, fun and accessible," he said.

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