Will Growing Crop of TV Apps Engage Viewers, Advertisers?

ABC, MTV Already Are Making Mobile Part of Upfront Package, While Others Use It as Viewing Companion

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The Gleeks have an app. So do "Dancing with the Stars" addicts and "Beavis & Butthead" fans. For popular TV series, there's definitely an app for that.

GLEEK DREAMS COME TRUE: 'Glee' app allows users to sing karaoke to songs from the show, then post to social nets.
GLEEK DREAMS COME TRUE: 'Glee' app allows users to sing karaoke to songs from the show, then post to social nets.
Apps are nowhere near a prerequisite for launching a successful series today, but mobile could bring back a slice of lost ad revenue and put networks and their brands on some of the screens that are stealing attention from TV viewership.

ABC and MTV were both first-movers on the iPad. During the upfront, Kristin Frank, general manager of MTV and VH1 Digital, said the network will package mobile with TV and other properties for advertisers. For MTV, apps create context for its shows and let the network interact with viewers while simultaneously laying the foundation for additional revenue streams.

"Clearly we're looking at apps to be a successful marketing tool," said Ms. Frank. "As an industry trend, we're not at a point of saturation by any means. It's not critical, right now, for the success of a show." Beyond ad sales, which would likely represent the largest chunk of mobile revenue, networks could sell additional content to users in apps. ABC declined to comment on upfront plans.

But will advertisers be buying?

Ads yet to arrive
"We're not quiet there yet from an advertising perspective," said Chris Allen, VP-director of video innovations, Starcom USA. "But we do have clients that are interested in exploring mobile as part of cross-platform programs."

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Another network, Fox, is collecting beyond the ad buy with its popular app for "Glee." The app costs 99 cents to download and, a few weeks after launch, has almost 200,000 users. In addition to providing further information about the show, the app lets users sing karaoke to songs performed in the show and then post those recordings to social networks. So far, 60,000 have been published. Users also pay additional fees for some songs, but there's no display advertising. The app's developer, Smule, is actively talking to brands about sponsorship opportunities, such as providing free songs to users. On average, the app is used once or twice per week at eight- to 10-minute sessions, most often when the show is off-air.

ABC's iPad app is not a game or engagement app like Glee's, but another distribution channel for TV episodes. Since it launched with Apple's tablet in early April, the ABC app has 609,000 downloads and 2.1 million episode starts. "That's a significant amount of viewership since launch," said Albert Cheng, exec VP-digital media for Disney ABC Television Group. "For us, it's additional distribution and additional inventory, but the inventory is an incredible premium experience."

Another breed of app is meant to be a companion to appointment TV viewing. Co-viewing apps provide information supporting what's on screen or aggregate social-media chatter, the real-time, digital sibling to water-cooler conversation about popular TV shows. ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" app gives details about dances performed on screen and also facilitates voting.

Two entertainment-marketing vets have launched a co-viewing app for all TV, not one particular show or network. Kevin Slavin, agency alum and cofounder of entertainment marketing firm Area/Code, launched Starling in April with Kenny Miller, former executive-VP and digital media creative director for MTV Network.

"The point of the app is to restore a sense of being in an audience, in a group," said Declan Caulfield, CEO of Starling, and former head of research and development for Fremantle Media, which is now involved in beta testing the app. "What we want to do is enhance that sensation, and for the TV companies, help them reflect their content onto the social graph."

Starling hopes to be the single point of entry for social chatter about TV in between the "walled gardens" of separate apps for separate shows and the "chaos of Twitter," said Mr. Caulfield. The app is not yet public, but beta testing with partners such as Fremantle, WPP ad agency JWT and other "major networks and brands," which Mr. Caulfield would not disclose, kicks off in June. The app's public release is slated for September. Once live, Starling plans to provide networks ad inventory in a revenue-share deal, and will also sell packages directly to brands. But Starling isn't going after the in-app banner business, it's going after brand social-media integration.

"The system we have in mind is a post-hoc system that responds to the conversation," Mr. Caulfield said. "They won't get banners, but they could get content packages or rewards of some kind; unlocking is the idea."

But with no significant brand participation in social TV to date, advertisers will need a bit of hand holding to dive into co-viewing apps.

"The concept of social TV is not new," said one Starling beta tester, David Rosenberg, director-emerging media, JWT. "But the mechanisms are. It's our job to help [advertisers] understand there's an engaged audience in these new places. Getting into social environments can help a brand get quickly discussed in the context of the entertainment itself."

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