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Synchronizing the Pay-TV Companion Screen

February 13, 2012 - 0 Comments

By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist

In my last post, I talked about how companion screens are changing the TV landscape. It’s easy to see how our ever-present smartphones and iPads can alter the TV viewing experience. (“I’m sorry dear, could you repeat that? I was checking my Twitter feed and responding to this IM, and I couldn’t hear you over the intro to Mad Men.”)

But what are people really doing on those companion devices? According to a white paper published last year by Yahoo! and the The Nielsen Company, nearly a quarter of them are looking up something related to what they’re watching on TV.

That’s an exciting trend for content producers, advertisers, and pay-TV service providers.

Even more exciting is the fact that users are doing this all on their own. What will happen when mobile device are synchronized with what’s on the TV? We’re about to find out. Several recent innovations link the TV even more tightly to the companion device. And they could have huge implications for stakeholders in every part of the industry.

Enhancing Television Viewing

The most immediate benefit of multi-screen synchronization is a richer viewing experience. To get a sense of that, check out the IntoNow app from Yahoo! for your smartphone or iPad.

The app detects what you’re watching by listening to the audio coming from the TV. It then pushes you content related to that show, for example, sports stats and scores, character bios, related links from IMDB and Wikipedia, etc. It also puts related social media at your fingertips, offering you Twitter feeds from the actors, discussion threads, live polling, and more.

The Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Boehret recently took the app through its paces, along with two other synchronized companion screen apps — Showtime Social and Shazam, which is expanding from its music-focused software to the TV.

Getting Service Providers into the Game

Cisco recently demoed its own companion screen application at CES, using software from Coincident TV with Cisco’s next-generation platform for pay-TV service providers, Cisco Videoscape.

In the Videoscape model, the app running on your touchscreen takes its cues from XML hooks into the content on the TV. So if you’re watching Glee, for example, the app can serve up tightly synchronized content to your iPad or Android tablet, including:

  • Lyrics to the song you’re watching, as you watch it
  • Character links and bios that appear when a specific actor comes onscreen
  • Options to enter contests when the offers appear on the TV (“Enter to be the ‘Gleek of the Week’ on Facebook!”)
  • Links to purchase the song (in its original form or the Glee version) on iTunes

Unlocking the Commerce Opportunity

So now the big question for advertisers, content providers, and pay-TV service providers: This is all really cool, but how do we monetize it? Naturally, a synchronized companion screen allows for advertising that’s a lot more interactive (and ideally, more interesting and useful for the viewer).

In the Videoscape app, for example, XML hooks can be used for commercials just as easily as for a show. So, for example, if there’s a commercial for a tour of West Side Story coming to my area, my iPad will display an option for me to click to get info or tickets. If the commercial is for spaghetti sauce, the iPad can serve up recipes and coupons. The possibilities are really endless. (In the Cisco demo, for example, when a commercial for Kit-Kat came on, the iPad offered up vintage Kit-Kat commercials from the 70s and 80s.)

A companion device also means that the viewer can jump immediately from advertising to purchasing. One of the coolest things in the Videoscape demo was the ability buy things appearing in a show that were not technically being “advertised,” by linking the companion device to clothing, products, restaurants, or anything else on screen during the show.

Shazam is piloting a similar service with NBC on its show Covert Affairs. TechCrunch’s Jordan Cook described the experience last fall:

So let’s say that Covert Affairs main character Annie is getting dressed on the show, and you notice that her outfit is exactly what you’ve been looking for. Simply tag the episode and voila! Delivery Agent pulls any items available for purchase right into the Shazam app…. Along with apparel and accessories within the programming, this new service will also let users buy program-branded goodies, like a Covert Affairs mug or t-shirt.

This kind of multi-screen synchronization is very neat stuff, but it’s almost more amazing to think about all the relationships going behind the scenes between service providers, TV networks, studios, advertisers, consumer products companies, and others to make it happen. The TV landscape is getting a lot more crowded — and a lot more interesting.

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