TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: TV gambles on interactive apps

As networks look to exploit social media channels to connect with viewers, is interactive 'social TV' the future of television?

Technology Spectator

In a week when Australia's major newspapers faced up to a tough dose of reality, it's easy to forget that print isn’t the only medium that is suffering. Television is being buffeted by waves of technological change as well, and without action it could end up in a similar predicament to its print counterpart.

Just like newspapers readers, TV viewers are utilising tech to modify their consumption habits. In effect, the average TV consumer is evolving into a professional advertising evader – if they’re not watching their favourite shows online, they’re recording them and watching them later to escape the ads.

So how are TV stations responding to this challenge?

Well for one thing, they are finding ways to use the prevalent tech trends to their advantage and reconnect with viewers. One major weapon in their arsenal is the marriage of television and social media, otherwise known as social TV.

A deeper integration of Facebook and Twitter in our daily lives, coupled with the plethora of smart devices at our disposal has created the perfect environment for broadcasters to pursue new engagement strategies.

Social TV adds a live element to each and every television show – even if it was pre-recorded months ago. It motivates viewers to tune in to the show at the designated time slot, rather than watching it in their own time.

While all networks have moved to exploit social media channels, a few have opted to take that extra step of creating their own social TV platforms and make a buck from it.

Seven Network has led the way with the release of Fango app last November and Nine Network is set to follow suit with the release of its own app, Jump-In, next month.

But do these apps really work or are they just another hindrance for viewers? Cross promotion of shows and in-app advertising seem like great ideas on paper but can the platforms really make money?

Fango frustration

It's almost impossible to watch a prime time Channel 7 show without hearing the word ‘Fango’ at least once. It's cross-promoted across the network with such ferocity that it's no surprise that the app has received around 500,000 downloads from across Apple and Google’s app stores.

Yahoo!7’s head of TV, Kristin Carlos, says that the app serves as a home for all the online chatter around one show.

"We’ve really seen a shift in the amount of people online, particularly while a TV show is on the air. They’re on our official website, they’re on Facebook and they’re on Twitter and really trying to be part of the action at the same time,” Carlos says.

"We really recognised this around 18 months ago and tried to create a product to meet that demand.”

Carlos adds that there are plans to keep the success rolling by rewarding avid Fango users with behind the scenes content or sneak peeks of up and coming shows.

"We’re extremely pleased with Fango’s results since launch,” Carlos says.

But those results aren't entirely complete, because we have no real data on usage and that's the metric that really matters.

Yahoo!7 is more than happy to offer statistics around how many quiz questions were answered or how many different shows were ‘logged into’ on the app since its launch. Yet Yahoo!7 was not able to provide raw use per week data that is a common metric used to measure the success of many other applications.

As former ABC Hungry Beast host, writer, broadcaster and social TV enthusiast Dan Ilic points out, just because an app is downloaded doesn’t mean it's used.

Leslie Nassar, founder of the TV twitter analytics firm TweeVee, also has doubts over just how successful Fango is. He says the polls and quizzes distract from the overall TV experience and Fango just isn't as popular as Yahoo!7 says it is.

Nassar was able to attain a rough idea of Fango’s usage because it is tied to a Facebook app. But pulling data from the Facebook app’s usage he determined that Fango has around 800 daily users.

Yahoo!7 has its own take on the data saying that the Facebook figure only accounts for a small subset of Fango’s actual user base and Nassar only has access to one piece of the puzzle.

"The numbers shared by Leslie Nassar do not accurately represent the Fango audience. The numbers Mr.Nassar has are a small subset of the total checked-in audience who are interacting in Fango,'" Yahoo!7 told Technology Spectator.

"Yahoo!7 recognises that not all Fango users wish to share their activity publicly and we have designed Fango with this in mind. People have a choice to either connect to Facebook or to access Fango without connecting to their Facebook profile. This means they can still check-in, vote in polls and participate in trivia in Fango."

"We have now surpassed over 1 million check-ins this year we have had over 60,000 poll questions answered in May,” Yahoo!7 says.

Jump-In's Olympics punt

Nine Network is yet to launch its social TV app, Jump-In, next month but it is already keen to point out the differences from its rival.

Rebecca Haagsma, director of product innovation at ninemsn, says that Jump-In will "cater to every user” by acting as an interactive, socially enabled TV guide that will not only support Channel Nine programming, but the programming of other networks as well. However, Channel Nine’s programs will be promoted through additional exclusive content.

Nine is so confident in the application’s capabilities that they are looking to publicly test the iPad app during the world’s biggest sporting event, the 2012 London Olympics. Haagsma says that during the Olympics the app would become an interactive viewing guide to all of the sports being broadcast.

Nassar says if ninemsn were able effectively create an interactive TV guide for the Olympics, they could be onto a winner. However, he suggests that after the event Jump-In could go down the same path as Fango.

What is the best social TV experience?

So do the likes of Fango and Jump-In have a future or are they destined to be flash in the pan ideas that never quite delivered on their potential?

While some say that the networks are better off investing in Facebook or Twitter apps for each individual show, Nassar believes there is a commercial incentive for creating a separate platform.

This is particularly important, as his research into Twitter use during TV shows found that more people tweet during the ad breaks than during the actual show. Apps are just one way the networks can prove to advertisers that they are actually engaging their audience during ads.

Nassar’s vision for an ideal social TV app involves a tool that allows friends to feel like they’re watching the show together when they are actually viewing it from distant locations. He adds that the app will allow users to recommend other content to one another and can even act as an online store allowing consumers to purchase items seen on a TV show through the tool.

An app with similar functions was recently displayed at the Amdocs conference in Miami earlier this year.

The Amdocs team member presenting the product, Yael Ashkenazi, told the media that the app – titled ‘Nxt TV’ – was a prototype pitched towards the cable television market.

In a sense, both Fango and Jump-in should also be seen as prototypes. Both will need further development before they are the genuine article. Fango might not be perfect but it is a step in the right direction. Importantly, Yahoo!7 has managed to take first-mover advantage in an evolving space rather than completely ignore the business potential. However, the other networks won't let it rest on its laurels for too long.

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