TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: The audacious app trying to take over TV

UK-based Zeebox wants to be the intermediary for all social media-television interactions. It will not only have to lure viewers, but the networks themselves.

Technology Spectator

These days, the idea of a media company bent on world domination almost seems laughable. The fact is, almost every traditional media company is either tackling financial turmoil or trying to come to grips with digital disruption. However, the doom and gloom permeating the sector hasn’t stopped one company’s ambition to dominate the globe, one device at a time.
For UK-based social TV app developer, Zeebox, the still unfolding second screen revolution holds the keys to future prosperity. The Zeebox app has overrun the UK, is making waves in the US and now – just two months after its American debut – has landed in Australia.

The company’s goal is simple: it intends to become the beating heart of Australia’s emerging social TV scene. And while its introduction to Australia has been facilitated through a partnership with Ten Network, Zeebox is keen to stress that it’s essentially agnostic when it comes to working with Australia’s major television networks.

What is social TV?

Social TV is a trend that’s gained significant momentum in Australia over the past year and is being hailed by the networks as an answer to the revenue damaging potential of time-shifted television.

To debunk all the jargon around the trend: if you use Twitter or Facebook or some other kind of social media on a device (or second screen) while watching the TV, then you're engaging in social TV. The onus is to encourage viewers to watch a show during its time slot and essentially give televiewing a fundamental makeover – from an antisocial pursuit to one that fosters connectivity and conversation between viewers.

Engagement through the second screen is also being seen as a beacon towards the future of TV advertising. In the not-too-distant future, your TV screen can sell a product with an ad and then the marketer can use the second screen to give you the ability to buy the product online.

Of course, this marketing plan only works with third-party applications, which provide a direct link between the TV program and the second device in use (tablet, smartphones).

That’s why outfits like Zeebox want Australians to comment about television on Facebook and Twitter through their apps, rather than through the normal social media channels.

Fighting against something as ingrained as posting comments on Facebook and Twitter is a key challenge, but it's one worth pursuing. According to a recent study by social media marketing firm Online Circle, Australian TV shows are the most talked about topic on Facebook in Australia. It also found that over eight million users actively follow the Facebook pages of Australia’s TV shows.

That’s potentially eight million users Zeebox could advertise to, provided it can coax them onto its app.

Wooing the networks

Getting Australians to alter their behaviour won’t be an easy task but Zeebox seemingly has a plan to encourage change. Interestingly, that plan doesn’t just involve winning over users through a massive marketing campaign but wooing the major TV networks as well.

The key thing separating Zeebox’s app from Facebook and Twitter is the bevy of additional functions and features. While Zeebox already offers a plethora of features – like an interactive TV guide and a system which links key words from a TV show to websites – the company’s Australian chief executive Craig Blair says that the software is at its best when its enhanced through extra "editorial” content from a TV network.

"The important thing about Zeebox, is that we don’t have to do all the editorial work ourselves. We’re a cross-channel, agnostic app,” Blair says.

"We’ll allow other networks to create their own experience in Zeebox,”

But the question is… will they want to?

Two of Australia’s major networks, Nine and Seven, already run their own social TV apps (Fango and Jump-In respectively), and may not be too keen to help out a rival. In addition, SBS has flagged that it’s more interested in bolstering discussion on Facebook and Twitter than it is in getting involved in the social TV app scene.

So far, Network Ten is the only station to join forces with Zeebox but Blair says that Zeebox is having "a number of interesting conversations” with Australia’s networks. However, he wouldn’t disclose how they are going, or which of the networks he is talking to.

He also wouldn’t reveal whether Zeebox was in discussion with Foxtel, but didn’t rule out the possibility of operating the Zeebox app across subscription television.

One app to rule them all?

While it’s much too early to truly determine the app’s appeal the early reception looks positive. The company’s co-founder, former BBC iPlayer CTO Anthony Rose, reaffirmed the app’s growth at the AIMIA social TV conference last month.

"It’s been going amazingly well. It’s doing several times per capita compared to the US or UK in terms of consumer uptake. Aussies love second screening,” he told marketing website B&T.

But do they love it enough to support more than one application?

Blair says that if the Australian market is anything like the UK and the US, it can support multiple social TV apps.

"NBC has hundreds of apps in market, Viacom has hundreds of apps in market, and I think the learning is that it’s a good thing to have multiple players at the moment,” Blair says.

He deflected assertions that Fango, Jump-In and Zeebox were rivals in the same space. He sees Seven and Nine as partners rather than enemies.

But the reality is Zeebox, Fango and Jump-In are all competing for the same advertising dollars.

The networks have a choice, they can either outsource a portion of their potential second screen marketing revenue to Zeebox or attempt to go it alone with their own social TV apps.

That choice however, may not last for long. Marketers are getting excited over Zeebox’s ad offerings with the first round of ad bundles set to be released in January next year.

If they are a success, we could one day see a situation where advertisers compel the networks partner with Zeebox as part of an ad deal. It’s at that point that we’ll be able to tell whether Zeebox has succeeded in its takeover of social TV industry in Australia.

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