While interactive TV is still very much an ongoing experiment, there's been a consumer-led revolution that's actually closer to delivering on the promise of interactive TV.
Innovation rarely happens on a predictable timetable. Exhibit A - interactive TV. For more than a decade it's been a revolution that's just around the corner. Remember when people were going to be using their remotes to purchase the sweater Jennifer Aniston was wearing on "Friends"? Here's an article from 2001 to refresh your memory. (Scroll down toward the bottom and enjoy the "Watch-and-buy-TV" heading.)
Nevertheless, progress does in fact march on. So while interactive TV is still very much an ongoing experiment, there's been a consumer-led revolution that's actually closer to delivering on the promise of interactive TV, if in a different form factor. Hello, second screen.
For the vast majority of its history, TV has been a highly effective but highly linear platform. It could do anything, it seemed, other than let you interact with it. It could drive you into stores to buy products, send you to the phones to engage in direct response calls-to-action, but couldn't take or provide any feedback on the programming or with the advertisers.
The first time most consumers felt like they were "doing something" with TV came with DVRs and time-shifting. While you couldn't do much, the ability to pause live TV and scan around was powerful, and it felt like the early players (TiVo and ReplayTV) were creating an ecosystem where interaction would be possible. But instead of helping marketers, the technology generally hurt as consumers happily whizzed by ads.
The next wave centered on trying to provide a channel and relationship on the big screen, sharing space with our precious content. While I've been involved with any number of these efforts over the years, in retrospect, there has never been much chance of success. Why?
- We buy big TVs so we can have big pictures. When they get partially covered or squeezed to make room for data, it's usually a bad thing.
- Many underestimated how much "co-viewing" (multiple people watching the TV together) exists. No one else in the room wants to see your unread emails, Twitter feed, or Fantasy Football progress.
- To date, the experiences have not been very compelling. While TV content has matured into a golden age, the interactive layer has been stuck in polls, trivia, and sports data.
Enter today's mobile devices to hopefully make yet another save. Because a funny thing happened while over-the-top upstarts and legacy players were trying to add interactivity on the big screen; their customers started getting their data from the devices that were within arm's reach, picking up phones and tablets during their TV viewing. We have all heard about the heavy cross-platform usage while watching TV, and as the data rolls out each quarter, the numbers keep getting bigger. Nielsen recently released its Cross-Platform Report that is well worth a look, but a couple key notes:
- 85 percent of people use tablets or smartphones while watching TV. Of those, 41 percent of tablet users (39 percent for smartphone) do it every day.
- It's not just the kids. Nielsen states, "While watching TV, 36% of P35-54 and 44% of P55-64 use their tablets to dive deeper into the TV program they are watching."
So how are shows putting this screen to work? And more importantly, is it a viable channel for marketers? I spoke at the 2nd Screen Summit in February, and it crystallized my thinking on second screen and helped me discover a few companies and services I had not been aware of previously.
In short, the three phases of second screen on mobile devices have been:
- Remote control apps
- Check-in apps
- Synched apps providing extra content
Remote control apps were and are interesting, but have not taken off. Most of the best known players in the space are trying to tell you, "Hey, you don't need that extra piece of plastic around in the living room." While we've shed a lot of our additional devices like GPS or music player, most people want the immediacy of changing the channel, adjusting the volume, etc. without having to find and open an app. It was a critical proof of concept but not very compelling.
Similarly, check-in apps astound me; all of the significant players (Tunerfish, Miso, GetGlue, Peel) do a combination of checking in and recommendations to create a social TV landscape. They all boast a large number of users, but it's unclear where this activity is coming from. I was speaking to a group of undergraduates in a prestigious media program and polled them on their use of these apps. Of 40 students, only a few had even tried them out and zero used them on a regular basis. This was telling for me; here's arguably the most digitally savvy demographic - and they had no interest.
Synched apps offer a much more compelling proposition. When done correctly they can provide valuable complementary information to a piece of programming. The technology that provides these apps with so much potential is called automatic content recognition (ACR). This is a nascent field, but it allows any device that is listening to get a signal from broadcast and know what is playing; which show, what ad, etc. This is done through digital fingerprinting of the broadcast. It's pretty wild west out there, and nearly every company is developing its own software and own standard, but a few companies are doing interesting work. For instance:
Gracenote has a product called Entourage that is coming on strong. Leveraging its database, it's developed apps as well as Smart TV software. Not only can it tell what show is on, but by listening, it can tell if the mood in the room is rising or falling; and react accordingly. If it feels tension building it can hold off on providing a second screen experience until after a climactic moment of the program. The software is featured in the Syfy Channel iPad app.
Magic Ruby has made its mark enhancing "Sons of Anarchy," the popular series on FX. The company's approach has been on providing tools for advertisers with media buying options and analytics dashboards. It's also quite focused on enabling commerce and hooking into sales.
IntoNow is another technology (this one owned by Yahoo) that uses "magic" to describe what it does. While the service's spin is much more geared toward social and what your friends are watching, the premise is very similar to the others. Using ACR, IntoNow locates what you're watching and brings up related data, partially by indexing and scanning the closed-captioning data.
On the legacy provider side, the always voluble Dish Network has developed its own second screen app. Not content to let third parties have all the fun, at CES this year Dish debuted its app, noting that it isn't as reliant on ACR because it already knows what you're playing. Dish is looking to bring out something that beats all of the startups and keeps the experience within its ecosystem.
There's no doubt we're going to see a tremendous amount of evolution in the space over the next 12 months. Here are some key trends to watch out for:
- Video fingerprinting. All video is going to have fingerprinting information in time. Fingerprinting allows the systems showing the video to know and understand what information is on-screen at a particular time. That means interactive content on the phone can know what is on-screen and serve up the appropriate content automatically rather than needing to be programmed.
- Virtual MSO. Many believe that we are close to seeing a new option for consumers in the pay-for-TV space. A "virtual" MSO would be a partner that had the content deals with all of the channels and could offer live TV packages, but without the infrastructure of cable to the home, satellites in the sky, and the like. By using an all-Internet solution, they have much greater potential to link the primary and secondary screen. Sony, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others are well-positioned to try it.
- Use UI to predict the winner. Content is king, but the user interface (UI) is queen. The data proves what we've intuited for years: to catch on, experiences need to be seamless, easy to learn, and easy to use.
- Ad auctions. We've started to see auctions come on strong on the web in the last couple of years and they are now taking up 20 percent of online inventory. The second screen is the perfect place for ad auctions because knowing what the user is watching provides the context that advertisers are going to want to compete for space in real time.
There is always going to be need for un-synched content portals; we'll never stop going to IMDB to get the name of an actor - but the purpose of these services is to improve the experience of the show, not to stand in the way of it. The challenge is that improving a great show is non-trivial. We know extraordinary experiences can be created; the question is whether they can be created at scale and provide ROI.
The platforms and third-party technologies currently engaged in the second screen race are certainly trying, and they are looking for some bold marketers to stake out new territory and join them in the risk. As we've always seen, it won't necessarily be the best technology that wins. The winner will be the service that finds the intersection of technology, user experience, and user behavior.
Touch Screen image on home page via Shutterstock.