The partnership will offer a “second screen” app in early 2012, allowing viewers to tap into related content and swap comments with friends watching the same broadcast TV show at the same time. Broadcasters hope the app with lead to increased revenue, greater engagement and better tune-in promotion. Participating station groups include those of Pearl, the joint venture formed last year to pursue the mobile DTV business. They include Belo, Cox, Scripps, Gannett, Hearst Television, Media General, Meredith, Post-Newsweek and Raycom.
Broadcast TV viewers may soon be able to sync up their tablets and other computers with whatever show they are watching and tap into related information and swap comments with friends watching at the same time.
That’s the “second screen” service envisioned by 10 TV station groups and ConnecTV, an Emeryville, Calif.-based startup that has developed the enabling app. If all goes well in current beta testing, it will become widely available sometime in January.
The participating station groups comprise the nine that formed the Pearl joint venture in 2010 to pursue the mobile DTV business — Belo Corp., Cox Media Group, E.W. Scripps, Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst Television, Media General, Meredith, Post-Newsweek Stations and Raycom Media — along with Barrington Broadcasting.
The groups comprise 201 stations, covering 45 of the top 50 markets and about two-thirds of U.S. TV households.
“We could see the TV ecosystem evolving around us and we wanted to get out in front and seize the initiative and capitalize on the opportunity born from the digital disruption,” said Roger Keating, who heads digital media at Hearst Television as an SVP and is a spokesman for the Pearl group.
“As any product in beta, there are some bugs we want to chase out. But those who have participated in the betas come away keenly aware of just how transformative this product could be.”
According to Keating, the participating broadcasters hope the service will become a new source of advertising revenue and a tool for promoting shows and for increasing program engagement and viewership.
The broadcasters have forged a multi-year partnership with ConnecTV and some of the Pearl groups have taken an equity position in ConnecTV, Keating said. He declined to identify which ones, although he suggested that Hearst was among them by noting that he would sit on the ConnecTV board.
With the free ConnecTV app downloaded and installed, computers in the same room as a TV will be able to identify what TV station in on by listening to the audio. Within seconds, the app will provide related program and advertising content as well as an interface for interacting with other invited viewers.
ConnecTV is supplying the ancillary content. “Based on what’s playing, you will see news, trivia, instant polls,” said Ian Aaron, co-founder of ConnecTV. “You don’t have to do anything to let your iPad or PC know what you are watching,” he added. “You don’t have to type anything or search for any information. All of these things just happen automatically.”
For instance, said Aaron, if the viewer is watching Dancing with the Stars, she may find backgrounders on the celebrities and the story lines leading up to the night when she first tunes in. “And when Ricki Lake is up and dancing, you’ll see more articles about her.”
According to Aaron, ConnecTV is drawing from a variety of sources for the related content. Right now, there are 13 sources including STATS LLC and the Associated Press.
The other dimension of ConnecTV is social media, said Aaron. A portion of the app screen is dedicated to what others are saying about the show as it airs, he said.
The app also syncs up with Facebook pages, he said. “Your friends will know when you have checked into a particular program and you’ll have the ability to invite them in to watch with you.
“So, if you just want to sit back and see more information or what people are talking about on the social thread, great. If you want to share it with your friends at the touch of a button or if you want to chat about a show, you can do more engagement. It’s really up to the user.”
The added revenue will come from banner ads and from links on the app that will appear when related spots on showing on TV.
TV spots can pitch a product with “amazing sight and sound,” but it’s strictly one way, Keating said. “With the synchronized overlay on the second screen, we can turn that one-way communication into a two-way communication where leads get generated, directions [to retailers] are given and inventory is revealed. We think it’s going to be a very valuable addition to our advertising arsenal.”
Keating and Aaron also stressed the value of the app for promoting upcoming shows of interest to the user and for increasing engagement with, and viewership of, shows.
“The ability to tap into the viewers’ social fabric and have them blast out to their friends and followers, ‘Hey, I’m watching the following show and it’s pretty amazing; why don’t you join me’ is a an opportunity that helps remind people of the incredible content that every day, every night is flowing out over our airwaves,” said Keating.
When the app first becomes available, ConnecTV will rely on whatever related content it can assemble on its own. But Keating and Aaron are betting that the broadcast networks and producers will eventually make available to ConnecTV the same content that they now generate for their show-specific apps.
“Over time, the dream and hope and belief is that more and more networks will augment what we can do without their help by doing a complete bear hug and working with us so we can really essentially distribute the great real-time synchronicity that they are building for their own native apps and distribute it through this [ConnecTV] platform.”
Added Aaron: “We would like to create that same native app experience, but within ConnecTV.”
Keating said that the charter consortium is looking for additional broadcasters not just to complete the national footprint, but also to add to the “promotional mass” in each market.
“This is a case where we can really join hands and make this a brand that can benefit all of us,” he said.
Keating said ConnecTV is a substitute for each station offering its own branded programming app. “We thought the more sensible approach would be to rally behind this national brand and essentially to pool our promotional ability and content assets behind a more comprehensive platform.”
According to Aaron, stations that choose not to actively participate will still be able to benefit from the app only not so much. If a viewer with the app tunes to a non-participating station, he will find “generic news, rather than tightly integrated news and promotion.”
Although ConnecTV is just two years old, its management has deep roots in TV. Aaron was president of Gemstar-TV Guide and CEO of TVN Entertainment.
Other key executives are Alan Moskowitz former senior engineer at MobiTV and member of the founding engineering team at TiVo; and Stacy Jolna, former general manager of TV Guide OnDemand (TV Guide SPOT) and chief programming officer and founding executive team member of TiVo.