The iTV Doctor Is In: Box and the Second Screen

Dear iTV Doctor:

I read your columns about the necessity for second-screen providers to connect to operators' set-top boxes, and I'm a believer! Making that initial connection through the box, and then tracking the program with ACR (Automatic Content Recognition) is clearly the way to go. But I've just looked at one operator's Web site and seen the number of set-top boxes I have to connect to, and all of a sudden I'm not quite so enthusiastic. There a dozens of different boxes, and I don't have the expertise to figure them all out.

There has to be a better way.

Second Screen in Schenectady

Dear Second Screen:

(Set-Top) Box and The Second Screen--with apologies to the late, great Helen Gurley Brown--is an issue that needs quick resolution. I've had a number of conversations with my engineer friends at the cable and satellite companies, and virtually all of them are preparing to issue API's that approved second-screen operators can use to drive their boxes (note the word "approved"). And many of those same people have told me, off the record, that they have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with a bunch of folks who don't understand the subscription television business.

To mitigate those concerns, and to keep the pedal to the metal on the second-screen space, the Good Doctor wrote a prescription for a "universal interface" that the second-screen folks could plug into on one side, and the cable, telco and satellite operators could plug into on the other side.

The good people at Corpus Software responded to that prescription and have now established themselves as the "go-to" guys to help all the second-screen providers with their set-top box connections. They developed the Corpus Handshake to help the second-screen folks get up and running, quickly and inexpensively.

As most in the second-screen space have discovered, the skill set to create and manage fabulous second-screen experiences on iOS and Android is dramatically different from the skills required to navigate through the hardware and software universe of the MVPD's. It is, to quote Gene Roddenberry, "The Undiscovered Country."

As noted above, most operators will require some kind of agreement between themselves and each second-screen provider who wants to connect to their boxes--remember the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Crash the Set-Top Box. And that's serious stuff. It used to take many, many months to get something built, tested, certified and approved to run on a set-top box from the major MSO's

Now some functions can be fired up in a matter of weeks, with the operator's permission.

The most immediate need for second-screen providers, of course, is the ability to SYNC with the box (so the app knows what the viewer is watching), and the ability to CHANGE CHANNELS on the box from the app. For the importance of that little trick, see this column.

Before long, I envision the operators asking the second-screen providers to connect with the subscriber account information for upgrades, account inquiries, VOD purchases and ecommerce. But most of that comes later. First you gotta connect to the box.

And that's where the Corpus Handshake comes in. The handshake basically allows the second-screen provider to connect to a universal interface, which in turn connects to the complex landscape of set-top boxes. There are two basic flavors of set-top boxes--Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta/Cisco. The other brands have insufficient deployment to worry about initially.

Here is an interesting link for Comcast subscribers, to help them find user's manuals for various set-top boxes. It provides a picture of the primary cable set-top box landscape.

Most Motorola boxes have similar operating systems. As do most Scientific-Atlanta boxes. And within those brands we have box series (2000, 3000, 6000, etc.) which have even more operating similarities.

The Corpus Handshake takes advantage of this very unique environment (is there anything else like it in the world?) and allows the second-screen providers to concentrate on their consumer applications.

Some of the second-screen folks are working with the Corpus Handshake now. And by this time next year, I reckon every major second-screen provider will have their initial sync to the set-top box; most will use some form of ACR to keep track of the action during any given program; and a few will provide some form of social-based program guide (we may even see that this fall) that allows the consumer to click on an icon for a program their friends are watching and change channels on their television.

And the beauty of set top box sync is that as the consumer changes channels, the app changes with them. And with the right configuration of ACR in the app, you have a seamless consumer experience that effortlessly makes the second screen an integral part of television viewing.


The iTV Doctor is Rick Howe, who provides interactive video consulting services to programmers, advertisers and technology providers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was inducted into The 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

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