Marketers, Networks Try to Expand Engagement Using Co-viewing Apps

Gone Are the Common Couch Potatoes, as People Chat, Tweet While Watching TV. So Why Not Take Advantage of It?

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A few years ago, while broadcasters were focused on 3-D and on-demand TV, viewers were starting a new phenomenon all on their own: co-viewing. Today, media companies are doing everything they can to encourage that behavior, which involves watching TV while chatting with others online.

Contributing to the rise in co-viewing was the pressure on TV producers to make more of "event television," said Declan Caulfield, CEO of co-viewing company Starling, which he founded with former Area/Code CEO Kevin Slavin, an early pioneer in the space. Mr. Caulfield said this included shows with big audiences, involved story arcs (e.g. "Lost"), heavy reality components and live events. "The types of narratives were getting more shocking and this had the unexpected effect on the audience in that they needed to talk to one another more," he said.

Miso, a startup by Bazaar Labs that is backed, in part, by Google Ventures, is a Facebook-esque interface that lets you check in to shows, "like" programs, comment and share links. Users get points based on how much they share. But for CEO Somrat Niyogi, this is just the beginning. "We want the device to talk to the TV," he said. Earlier this month, the app, which has about 250,000 users, partnered with DirectTV so it can now understand what you're watching and deliver appropriate content on the second screen.

Much of the co-viewing push is also coming from networks themselves. MTV 's WatchWith and VH1's Co-Star app operate on what Stephanie Boyle, co-founder, calls a "curation principle," the idea that media companies were missing an opportunity because they didn't have a place to capture viewer attention, which was instead directed toward Facebook, Twitter or independent apps. The MTV and VH1 apps, both built on Rogue Paper's TV Tune In platform, pull in trends from social networks, clean up the spam and noise, apply natural language filters and deliver users content in line with what their friends are watching and talking about. But the apps plan to go a step further with an ad-sync experience that also figures out what ad you are watching and provides a rich-media accompaniment.

In April AKQA released Heineken Star Player, a dual-screen soccer app that let fans "play along" with UEFA Champions League games. It was responding to a brief to engage guys sitting around drinking beer at home -- but don't make it interruptive.

Technologists and creatives researched soccer fans' viewing habits to find the right moments to engage and then partnered with TV providers to match up latencies -- the time delay between pitch action and when it gets transmitted on the screen. The Star Player's second round, launched in September across four global markets, is expected to support 1,200 page views per second. By comparison, the BBC U.K. site serves about 350.

AKQA and Heineken's success may have been because they got one thing right that others didn't: They understood that levels of interaction are heavily dependent on the type of content. Marie-Jose Montpetit, an MIT scientist who researches social TV, said sports events invite in-program interaction, while drama arcs are more suited to engagement before and after the show, not during. "People that develop content have to be more aware and content protection needs to develop," she said.

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