Second screen live experiences to come of age in 2012

For the 2000 Superbowl, my flatmates and I stayed up to watch Sky’s coverage of the game. We also hooked up my IBM Thinkpad to our 56k connection and played an interactive game from ABC. The interactive game synchronised to the NFL game, offering stats and profiles of the playmakers. The service also had a device whereby you guessed the next play, building up points for correct guesses. Despite our pitiful internet speeds I remember this being a very slick experience that added enormously to a sport I only had a passing interest in. I’ve yet to experience as engaging a ‘second screen’ experience.

This year it might change. A number of factors are making synchronous interactive experiences of great importance to television broadcasters. It is also an area that new tech companies, like Zeebox, are innovating in. The factors relate to matured broadcast technologies, advanced audience-owned technologies and cultural changes in television commissioning.

Broadcast Technology Maturation

Most UK broadcasters have opened up play-out and EPG information to the outside world via programme pages. This dynamically generated information allows applications to sort, amalgamate, schedule and re-render live programme information in a form that sits alongside broadcasting. This may be in the form of ‘now playing’ information as seen on TV Guide or more immersive live experiences like the BBC Radio 1 homepage. Building on the visualising radio experiments, the Radio 1 homepage shows extra information about tracks played, messages, guests and DJs in real-time and dynamically (though additional editorial curation happens in peak-time). Read Chris Johnson’s description for more detail.

Radio 1's live homepage

What can second screen TV learn from the BBBC Radio 1 live homepage

However, it isn’t just about programme information for real-time broadcast. For more intense experiences, enhancements can supplement programming when available, such as for sports and elections. UK broadcasters have already been making use of stats and alternative video sources to provide customised experiences around Formula 1, cricket, quizzes and the UK Elections on Red Button (AKA Interactive TV) services. Although about 12 years old, this popular format has limitations compared with dynamic connected services. Essentially Red Button is broadcasting with more choices, rather than the interaction or personalisation of real-time viewing. That’s why BBC Sport’s plans for Olympics 2012 coverage are extremely exciting and ground-breaking, but more about that later.

An underexploited area that certainly needs focus outside of BBC R&D is voice and picture transcription. Some broadcasters have played with this technology, as did Google’s initial video search, however Blinkx (powered by Autonomy‘s engine) is a market leader in translating meaning from AV content. They convert AV to searchable text by employing voice recognition and picture identification. Once this information is added to the real-time mix, a very deep and interlinked second screen experience may be possible.

Advanced audience owned technologies

From my turn of the century lo-fi set-up to the current connected home, far greater opportunities abound. High speed connections both in the home and on the move, mean plans can be more ambitious for dual screen services, whilst data synchronisation with broadcast is much more reliable. Most people have laptops, even more own, more lap friendly, smart phones, whilst tablet shipments reached 15 million in Q2 2011. Smart TVs meanwhile are expected to hit 52 million sales in 2011, with about 200 million connected games consoles offering TV services. Not only are these devices connected but the operating systems are far more sophisticated, data is linked up with social networks for individuals and there are more software developers able to quickly deploy via Agile processes. It all means that you can customise and join up broadcast experiences as never before, both on the screen and second screen.

So the audience has the technology, but are they actually interacting? Stuart Dredge, blogging for MiP describes how The Oscars with 1.2 million tweets showed that audiences are more than willing to interact on a second screen, whilst BBC Research & Development quotes research from Nielsen showing that 57% of US viewers simultaneously consume TV and internet content. Zeebox conducted their own research to test the market size for second screen experiences finding the same number,  57% of audiences, messaging or on social networks whilst watching TV. The evidence is proving that audiences want to interact alongside TV viewing.

Cultural changes in television commissioning

TV commissioners mainly saw (some still see) the internet as either a threat or a box ticking exercise a few years ago. Very few programmes fully embraced the benefits of the interactive mediums. Typically a ‘more information at www…’ message was tagged on the end of a programme. You can point at nature, childrens and sport as three genres that integrated interaction early on in the heart of commissions, but they were the exception.

With the younger audience turning to ubiquitous social networks to converse and share video content from You Tube and Daily Motion  alarm bells started ringing in the corridors of TV power. Interaction and the internet wasn’t just an add on, it was essential for a programme to gain traction and relevance. Broadcasters launched video on demand services like BBC iPlayer and 4OD to offset the loss of control to You Tube. At the same time they started up You Tube channels to meet young people where they already went. Younger focused channels like E4 and BBC Three had a push to include social media, user generation and online interaction to engage the younger viewer, sometimes with cridge-worthy results (see BBC Three’s Family Guy UGC). Commercial organisations have also realised that the internet can offer a highly targeted advertising platform which can supply media planners with precise metrics to shape and change campaigns. For new shows seeking a lucrative sponsor Twitter buzz has become vital to attracting brands to something cool.

Pure findability, though less attractive as a theme, has become an issue of greater importance to programme makers. Questions coming back to interactive departments from channel commissioners were ‘why aren’t we top of Google results but pirated video is?’ or ‘why can’t I find that episode, though I know it’s there?’. Part of the issue was making content sharable, but more fundamental was getting good quality, attractive, supplementary data. Certainly in the BBC, track listings, tags, optimised plot descriptions, cast lists and rich photography were made a focus. Each programme is boosted in Google and made more attractive in social networks with rich metadata.

New opportunities

So with increased connectivity, capabilities and positive commissioning cultures, what should we expect from 2012 for real-time broadcast interaction.

As I mentioned, the 2012 London Olympics provided the BBC an opportunity to showcase something innovative, despite overall cuts. Within the technology department at the Beeb it has been made the flagship priority – where the majority of innovation is focused. Aside from the live streaming of every event, the smart designers have developed a fantastic joined up second screen experience around Sport. Sport is perfect for technologists to innovate on. It has a large, avid audience, with a penchant for new technology and loads of very structured data to play with. Out of this fortuitous circumstance we’ll see a fine example of Touchpoint design. You’ll watch the main video action on your TV with the basic graphics indicating score, times and the like; whilst your tablet/smartphone shows real-time in-depth stats about the event and its participants. The drafts I’ve seen look very visual, in the spirit of The Guardian’s innovative infographic work. I like the way that the BBC Olympics team hasn’t tried to cram too much on the screen with the action, nor tried to just throw everything at the tablet. It is focused and usable.

Live blogging has come to the fore in the last few years too. The Guardian, BBC News, Sky News and ITV’s X-Factor have been embracing of real-time storytelling. The art of live blogging isn’t about just quickly updating facts, but about pulling in other voices, interpreting input from correspondents, stimulating discussions, discovering reliable voices, setting the tone and dropping in intriguing media. Live Blogging has focused mainly on the desktop, but ports well to tablet and mobile. Services like Cover It Live have been dominant in this area, but, Storify, Tumblr as well as in-house solutions may start to replace it as the default live commentary.

Finally there are augmented real-time services like Zeebox, which combines a TV guide, social viewing, live data and follow up information. Zeebox is perfectly simple, choose what you’re watching from an EPG or join in to watch your friends are viewing. After that, tags, tweets and supplementary information around the programme pops on the screen. If you don’t know who that actor is, you can find out in an instant. Want to buy the programme on DVD, it’s there too. Zeebox is still iterating, so there are a few features I’d like to see added in further releases. These features include plot histories for soaps, adding songs featured to playlists and sports stats. I also noticed a flaw in twitter aggregation when watching +1 channels. I kept quiet, but I could see the outcome of Coronation Street from the start last night, whilst everyone else was waiting to see what would happen to Lloyd.

Other augmented services focus on social viewing and adding game dynamics (Get Glue, Miso and Tunerfish). These services allow fans of shows to share their viewing with friends and gain virtual rewards for checking in. They can help to foster communities of fans around shows and introduce new people to them, but don’t especially add to experiences that people are already having using Twitter or Facebook. In their favour, Get Glue and its ilk are more fun and intuitive to use than social networks; this is important, as form can be as important as function for glanceable second screen experiences.

The future or just now?

The question is really whether the second screen is just an intermediary stage before Smart TV’s become dominant. With their on-screen overlays, social integrations and customisations, Smart TV’s potential can be seen with ESPN’s stunning Sports service for Samsung connected TVs. It is hard to tell whether it is just transient, but the second screen is certainly more personalised and therein more social. Personal devices are better for viewing in the company of others, as most front-room watching tends to be. The second screen is also more portable, so you don’t need to fire up another device if you’ve already been chatting about a programme before getting home.

Joanne Moore from the BBC R&D unit has been doing some interesting research on behavioural tendencies of second screen usage for her PhD. The thesis is yet to be published but I was one of her guinea pigs for a test. It became apparent during the test that the type of genre determines the type of interaction I want from my second screen. For quizzes I want everything in view, so that I don’t miss anything switching between screens. For Sports or action focused programming,  I want to see all the scene on screen unobscured, but will use a natural break, like when the ball is off the pitch, to check things like league positions. For Music, I could do either, as it is audio lead programming. Whilst for drama I want to sit back, absorb the plot and acting, then follow up things afterwards or check I’ve understood character relationships in advert breaks.

I’m genuinely excited about the possibilities of real-time second screen experiences over the next 12 months. If broadcasters really embrace the enhanced TV opportunity, they will preserve their channels as places to gather for shared cultural moments.

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