Friday, December 03, 2010

The awakening of TV to the 21st Century ...Real Soon Now?

CoTV was ahead of its time in 2002...  Now the stars may really be aligning for TV "companion" apps.

When I talked about CoTV to people at major TV and Web companies in 2002-5, they thought it was a good idea and assured me "Yes, I get it."  Some did, and some just thought they did.  Like all forms of "interactive TV" it has been "just around the corner" for many years "waiting for the stars to align."  But now the stars really do seem to be aligning.

At the recent TV of the Future "TVOT NYC Intensive"  from iTVT and Canoe, it was evident that important things are happening:

  • iPad has awakened he giants:  Comcast, Time Warner, TV networks, TiVo, and many others are jumping into coactive "companion" apps for tablets (and phones).  iPad and other tablets are nearly ideal companion devices, and already in millions of laps.
  • Platforms for interaction (CableLabs/Canoe, ETV, EBIF, ...) are enabling real innovation and increasing openness from within the distribution establishment.  EBIF is in over 20 million homes, and growing rapidly, not only in cable systems.  ETV is getting real.  The PayPal Buy Button is a nice example.
  • Over-the-top alternatives are real -- the incumbent system operators know they need to get into the 21st century or watch their content distribution business get bypassed.
At the same time, others are moving in the same direction, and users are doing it themselves, manually and awkwardly, but in growing numbers:
  • External plays based on TiVo, Blu Ray (Pocket BLU), and sound recognition (Spot411 Entertainment Tonight) show how this can be done outside the cable plant, even for shows distributed on cable.
  • Social TV apps (about what you are watching now) are making the viewer value proposition even more powerful.
What is missing is for a smart player to provide an "always-on" TV sync connector -- a single app and context portal that drives any companion content for any show (and any ad) to a large base of households.  The problem has been that nearly all attempts to provide TV companion apps have been siloed, and limited to a single program or network.  
  • In the early 2000's ABC ETV and Goldpocket did second-screen companion apps for major network shows (Millionaire, Sunday/Monday Night Football, Academy Awards, etc.) but only if you navigated to an ABC or program-specific Web site.  Up-take was rarely even 1% of  viewership, hardly a basis for a business.
  • Now iPad and iPhone apps are creating similar experiences, but for the most part it is still a different app for each show or network.
How can anyone really expect significant uptake when users must know there is a particular app, bother to get it, then bother to use it, and then do the same every time they change channels or programs?  Even now at TVOT, I spoke to someone from Canoe who seemed to think I must be some kind of idiot to view this as a problem.  Saying (my paraphrase): "The user can just get the right app, or just go to the right Web site.  That BMW ad you want to sync to is a network ad, not a cable ad, so the network has to provide the app -- or the viewer can just go to That is simple -- why can't you see that???"  

One more time:  The viewer should not have to switch from a Comcast app to an ABC app to an MTV app to a BMW app (or enter a different URL) every time a program or ad changes. Only when there is one app (or Web portal) that seamlessly syncs enhancements for any show and any ad will this be easy for the viewer.  I should just be able to turn enhancements on, and have them appear on my tablet with no further effort (until I turn them off).  And when it is that easy, companion enhancements might quickly grow to 10-20-30% of viewership or more.  Just the linkage revenue from linking those ads would be worth many billions.

So does anyone get it yet?  Yes.  My contacts with well-placed industry players indicate that more and more of them now do get it, and some see it beginning to happen in the next year or two.  The cable operators have finally recognized that set-top boxes are good MPEG engines, but hopelessly inadequate platforms for user interfaces, and that they must open up to partners using Web-based technologies.  Canoe is seeking outside partnerships and ideas.  Maybe the system operaors will actually do what they need to do.  One interesting hint of this new direction is the eBay companion TV app, which can sync an iPad with any program on an EBIF-enabled set-top.  A demo by RCDb at TVOT Intensive showed a similar app for syncing iPad enhancements to deliver IMDB pages and other content.  Cable operators are starting with companion program guides, but a program guide that does not know what you are watching right now is pretty lame (as they are aware).  Once they provide that added smarts to the companion, linking to program-specific enhancements will be (relatively) easy.

And if the distributors do not get their act together, outsiders will do it.  The Spot411 effort shows one approach, and there are many others.  TiVo is well positioned to do it (and could still win big if it did).  And if it comes too slowly to the legacy providers, the IPTV players will soon have enough viewership on big screens to lead the way.

So who will it be that realizes this is a critical race, does it right, and wins it? TV is ready to be reborn for the 21st Century.  Once someone makes it easy to use across the board (and does not cripple it), it will happen very fast.