Feature Story

Tune in, Check In

by Sue Tabbitt

Social TV, otherwise known as ‘chatterboxing', is transforming the way people watch television; engaging audiences and spreading pre-show hype quicker than through traditional promotions. Companion apps are adding to the ‘buzz', keeping fans coming back for more and helping networks to grow their audiences.

TV viewing habits are currently undergoing the biggest shake-up since black and white gave way to color. This is thanks to the so-called ‘second screen' phenomenon, whereby consumers interact with shows, ‘companion apps' and online friends while watching their favorite show.

In the UK, a nation famous for its TV consumption as well as advanced activity on social networks, the rise in ‘chatterboxing' is particularly pronounced. A new report by TV Licensing* reveals that one in four British adults, rising to 44% of under-35s, regularly engages in two-screen viewing.

TV networks and program makers welcome the trend. In a world saturated with hundreds of satellite and cable TV channels, not to mention the competing pull of alternative entertainment such as online gaming, the TV industry must work twice as hard to keep consumers engaged - and advertisers spending.

A return to live viewing

One of the direct benefits of chatterboxing is that it is beginning to encourage viewers to watch shows live again as they revel in the almost-lost shared experience. This is resulting in a reversal of the time-shifting behavior driven by personal recording facilities (PVR) or web-based ‘catch up' services. ICM, which conducts vast consumer polls in the UK, has found that 24% of adults aged under 35 now prefer to watch a show live because they enjoy the surrounding online experience. This is great news for commercial sponsors who lose audiences when viewers use PVR to skip ads.

Another strong benefit of second-screen activity for broadcasters and production companies is the ‘buzz' created around TV shows, as friends expand the shared experience by predicting storylines, commenting on what they've just watched, and recommending shows to their peers. In essence, this is wonderfully-targeted free PR.

One network to seize this opportunity early on has been FX UK, a British subsidiary of Fox. The channel targets a predominantly male audience, aged 25-40 – a consumer base that is already highly connected through social media. Earlier this year, the company introduced a second-screen companion app to Fox's acclaimed horror show, The Walking Dead, which was returning to UK screens after a 10-week mid-season break over the winter Holidays.

"With such a long hiatus between parts one and two, we were concerned about how we'd keep viewers engaged," explains Cecilia Parker, general manager at FX UK.

The new companion app, so far available only in the UK, is an online game which builds on a phenomenon that FX UK had observed when monitoring comments about the show on Twitter and Facebook. These revealed that viewers liked to predict the zombie body count in each show. By exploiting this in a game format linked directly with live shows, FX UK has been able to keep fans fully engaged. At the same time, the extended online buzz around the experience has attracted an expanded audience.

In the run up to part two of The Walking Dead, FX UK began inviting fans to download the app, to create momentum. Says Parker, "More than 50,000 people had downloaded the app by the day of the launch." The returning episode after the long hiatus, meanwhile, took FX UK to number 1 in pay TV rankings in its timeslot - something that hadn't happened even for the premiere episode. "So we outperformed the competition with our return despite a significant gap!"

The Walking Dead app reached number 10 in the iTunes chart, and TV audiences remained consistently high over the weeks ahead. "We haven't seen the usual drop-off in audience figures," Parker notes. "In a highly competitive market, we've maintained a consolidated audience of 1.1-1.2 million viewers a week." More people are watching live now too, to be part of the action as it happens, and to avoid spoilers.

Synchronized screens

One of the reasons FX UK has enjoyed particular attention is that The Walking Dead app uses cutting-edge digital audio watermarking technology, allowing the companion app to ‘listen' to the TV show and sync the two experiences for the viewer. This is the first time that digital audio watermarking technology has been deployed commercially as part of a TV companion app in the UK.

The app was developed by Red Bee Media, a specialist media management company which provides multi-platform technology and creative solutions to broadcasters, content rights holders, platform operators and brand owners. Red Bee's innovative technology platforms can also be used to create interactive online TV listings, where content is brought to life with personalized recommendations, and showing people what their friends are watching at any given time - because viewers are encouraged to ‘check in' as they turn on their TV.

Because so many of these applications are still at an experimental stage, TV networks, content producers and advertisers who seize the opportunities early have a chance to stand out, differentiating their brands and drawing a bigger audience than they might have done previously.

Ms Parker notes that for the price of a half-page, one-off advertisement in a national UK newspaper, FX UK has been able to develop "a valuable promotional asset with a long shelf-life" – one that can easily be "re-skinned" for use with other TV shows. "It is brand-defining," she says.

"As we further develop our social media strategy, beyond ‘sneak peaks' and enhanced content, this kind of innovation will be invaluable. Ultimately, the channel itself will be available on mobile devices, so companion apps are taking us in the right direction. The aim now is to make more companion apps for other shows, even for the channel brand itself, though it's early days. These are exciting times to be working in TV."

Source: TV Licensing (UK)/TeleScope 2012 report: (nb UK TV viewers must pay an annual TV license to access terrestrial channels) http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/resources/library/BBC/MEDIA_CENTRE/TV_Licensing_Telescope_Report_2012.pdf

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