The iTV Doctor Is In! Will TVplus Change the Game?
In our last column, we talked about a simple and effective way for cable operators to use their existing technology to link the programming they deliver on television to an appropriate interactive user experience on a companion device. And the reaction from our readers has been terrific. We'll provide an update on that project in another column.
Today's column is sort of the other side of that coin: a virtually idiot-proof way for iPad users (and eventually users of other devices) to interact with live or recorded television with a minimum of effort. It works with three steps (and most viewers have already done the first two):
- Turn on the iPad.
- Turn on the TV.
- Click the TVplus icon.
From that point on, TVplus "listens" to what you're watching, and recommends contextual experiences for what it "hears." If you change channels, TVplus is right there with you, listening and recommending.
And here's something amazing, somewhat jaw-dropping for network execs: The Television Network Has No Control Over What TVplus Recommends.
Read that again, and we'll continue.
We first heard of TVplus at the "Anatomy of ACR" panel, moderated by yours truly at the TV of Tomorrow Show this past May. TVplus founder and CEO, Ajay Shah, spoke on that panel, and I remember commenting to a friend that Adam Cahan (IntoNow) and Evan Krauss (Shazam) had the advantage of being able to describe their product in under a minute, and everybody else needed their full ten-minute allotment.
What a difference two months makes.
I caught up with Ajay, just prior to his scheduled July 18th launch of TVplus in the Apple App Store. Here's how the conversation went:
iTV Doctor: Ajay, you've had a busy couple of months. You're ready to launch, and you've tightened up your marketing. So, how do you describe TVplus?
Shah: TVplus is a Web browser that you use while you watch TV. Using TVplus makes what you watch on TV clickable. Download the TVplus app to your iPad, turn on your TV, and within seconds TVplus will identify exactly what you're watching. Now, TVplus delivers interesting content related to each scene. Who's that actor? What's that song? What are that player's stats? All of this information (and much, much more) is beautifully presented to the user.
iTV Doctor: How do you create the handshake, or link, between the television program and the companion device?
Shah: We use the device's microphone so it can listen to what you're watching on TV. Our program can identify what you're watching within one second of the broadcast. Unlike some other solutions that ID the program only when you start, TVplus keeps working and listens to the program while you are watching. So if you channel surf, it stays right there with you. Same thing if you fast-forward or rewind on your DVR (or your on-demand selection): TVplus is right there and keeps you in sync with where you are in the broadcast.
iTV Doctor: This suggests that when I'm going to sit down and watch TV with my iPad, I open the TV Plus application, and TVplus does the rest--it's going to monitor what I'm watching.
iTV Doctor: And this will be in the App Store?
Shah: Free of charge on July 18th, pending Apple's final approval (we've been working with them for a while now, and the July 18th date looks good).
iTV Doctor: You're not expecting everybody to interact with everything they're watching, are you?
Shah: No. 80% of what people do when they watch television is NOT related to the television. But using our browser, which keeps working and listening, you always have our contextual layer of content available.
iTV Doctor: Let's talk about that content. What IS the content that relates to the show? And where do you get it?
Shah: The content that relates to the show are the things that you want to know about the show. More information about a guest actor--who is he? where have I seen him before? who recorded that song in the show, and how can I buy it? And the same goes for a commercial within the show--more information about that product, and where I can buy it. And if there is a popular cultural reference that seems familiar, you can explore that as well. It also relates to location--we can take you to the Google map for that location, and provide more information about that place.
iTV Doctor: I'm going to create a shortcut description. Tell me how close I am. It sounds like you are not actually creating this content that relates to what's on the screen; it sounds more like you are enabling a sort of voice/sound/music-activated search engine that shows me content that's related to what's on the screen. Is that pretty close?
Shah: No, actually, we ARE creating the content that you are seeing. We have a team of content producers who are watching the programs, either live--off the East Coast feed--or recorded, and we are producing this content that relates to what you're watching. And we can certainly preview the programs from the networks earlier that same day and be ready to roll at each show's premier. We work VERY fast.
iTV Doctor: Tell me about producing content. For example, one of the things I do when I'm watching TV is check in with Amazon's Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). I look for information about that movie or that show; who's in the cast and where I've seen them before; who directed; who produced and where it was shot. Are you doing your own content authoring, or are you linking back to existing sources?
Shah: We're linking back to existing sources.
iTV Doctor: So I might actually end up in the IMDb site for a given show, but I don't have to work as hard to get there. OK--so are you people assembling a "menu" of pre-selected sites to complement these programs?
Shah: Yes, exactly. In our content management system we have 30 pre-defined types of content they can choose from--whatever makes the most sense: IMDb, Wikipedia, iTunes, Google Maps, whatever...
iTV Doctor: Let's talk about the interesting connection between copyrighted content and the benign self-interest of the content provider and network. We'll use one of my favorite examples: I'm watching (God help us!) "Jersey Shore" on MTV. If I'm going to Wikipedia or IMDb, there's not really a problem. But if I'm linking over to the MTV site, I'm assuming MTV would love for me to do that. Is there a business relationship what would let MTV put their own content up at the top of that list?
Shah: Absolutely. And what's very important about that is that the networks oftentimes do create special Web content not only for the show, but also for a specific episode. If that content exists, and it's tied to a specific moment in the show, we can link to it right then and there, and TVplus does all the work.
iTV Doctor: So in the case of a programming network like that, they may already have a lot of content available. And one of the problems that TVplus solves is finding all that content without too many clicks. Right now, you click on the network site, then on the show, then on the season, then on the episode (if you know the episode number)--by the time you get to where you're going, you forgot why you came! It sounds like TVplus would direct the viewer to the specific content that complements the episode they're watching.
Shah: That's correct. And it's very important to point out it's not just the entire show, it's specific content that relates to specific moments within the show.
iTV Doctor: So let's go back to "Jersey Shore" (and ignore the fact that it represents the downfall of American culture as we know it). I think they're in Italy this season. If the cast was visiting "that Pizza tower," you might create some geographical links to the Tower of Pisa. And I would assume you might also provide tourist information, maybe even sponsorship from an airline or hotel group for a Tower of Pisa tour.
Shah: That's the nature of the content. With the Tower of Pisa, there might be two or three reference points. One would probably be the Wikipedia entry, another would be a photo gallery, and then--if we think it's relevant--we might provide a link to a third-party site with tours and other information.
iTV Doctor: And not only if it's highly relevant--you would also provide those commercial links if they PAID you to do it. If you had an ongoing sponsorship from Hilton Hotels and United Airlines, and you could provide relevant links to the right moments within the television programs, that's something that creates value both for the viewer and the sponsor. Now admittedly, it might be more fun to provide that information for Bali during "Eat, Pray, Love." But the model holds across all content.
Now talk to me about how this has been received in your talks with television networks and potential sponsors?
Shah: We've had ongoing conversations with the networks. But the reason we're taking this approach (of gathering and recommending content) is that the networks just can't get it all done by themselves. Certainly there are a lot of shows that have tons of online and mobile companion content; but there are even more shows that have nothing. We thought we would give them a hand--create a basic experience that viewers can enjoy. But we believe the networks can certainly amplify and enhance that experience. And hopefully by creating the baseline content, we make it easier for the networks to add more of their own unique experiences.
iTV Doctor: There are some networks who do a lot of companion content distribution, and I'll reference our friends at Showtime. When they air "Weeds" or "The Big C," Showtime has content running on every device known to man (I wouldn't be surprised to hear that content running through my car radio pretty soon). So they already may have a very rich companion experience for iPad for "Weeds," and in that case I guess what TVplus does is to simply make it easier for the consumer to find that special content. So here's a hard question: would you automatically put Showtime's own content at the top of the list if you DIDN'T have a commercial relationship with Showtime?
Shah: We would certainly do that, because the Showtime content would be extremely relevant to what our consumers are expecting. Our most important relationship is to the consumer--creating an engaging experience for the user for the 3.5 to 4 hours a day that they watch television. So there is plenty of money to be made here by everybody, but the MOST IMPORTANT part is creating a terrific experience for the consumer.
iTV Doctor: Has any network expressed concern that the content you're linking to is not necessarily "approved" by the network? What if you determine that an appropriate link for Showtime's "Weeds" is NORML (that's The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws for those of you who are not leftover hippies). I'm not sure that Showtime and CBS would necessarily approve of that.
Shah: This is part of the reason that the third-party application makes sense. It's NOT fully endorsed by the network. There can be a bit of distance between the content and the second screen, and that's part of the value to the consumer. Our tests show the viewers don't WANT the content to be bound by the constrictions of traditional television content. If you tried to do that, the experience would lose its authenticity. If the consumers were just surfing the Web, they'd look at anything they want. We can keep to that model. We are not just providing a "quick link" to a specific piece of information--we're enabling a 30-minute, one-hour or longer experience between the viewer and the television program. And to make that work, we have to let the consumer do the driving. We just provide the platform and the recommendations. And it works for both recorded and live programming. For example, within a 30-minute program (22 minutes of content and 8 minutes of advertising), we usually have 30 different recommended pieces of complementary content--in addition to what the viewers find on their own.
iTV Doctor: Let's take another complexity of television. Today, the makers of distilled spirits have a policy of not advertising on television. But Mary Louise Parker in "Weeds" might have a thing for Herradura Tequila. When "Weeds" plays in syndication (on TV Guide Network, I believe), they won't run advertising for Herradura. But TVplus can certainly provide a link to the Herradura site, with all kinds of context. Has that come up in your conversations?
Shah: Not yet. But that speaks to the same benefit--arm's length distance that we can create for the network. And that certainly provides an opportunity to share some revenue back to the network. That is a key benefit to the television industry from what we do--we are ADDITIVE with viewer engagement, and we are ADDITIVE with advertising revenue. We think television networks have an enormous revenue opportunity with TVplus.
iTV Doctor: How do you market this and generate the kind of usage that makes sense to networks and advertisers? There are hundreds of thousands of apps in the App Store.
Shah: There are four things we need to do. The first and most important thing is to have a really good product--we know that nothing kills a bad product faster than good marketing. Secondly, we're in a culture where people want to share their favorite apps, and we are very Facebook- and Twitter-friendly, so that you can share what you're watching through TVplus. Whenever you sync to a show, you have the option of "checking in" to that show. And we made that sharing OPTIONAL (because you might not want everybody to know that you're watching "Glee," but you might want to share a song from the show). We're allowing other third-party apps to integrate with TVplus, and that creates added value for what they're doing. And lastly we want to work with the networks themselves, to invite viewers to TVplus for their programming. That's the biggest win for us, and the reason we are so willing to share our success with the networks.
iTV Doctor: Excellent. Good luck on the July 18th launch.
The iTV Doctor is *Rick Howe*, who provides interactive television consulting services to programmers and advertisers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was nominated to Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms. Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org