The iTV Doctor Is In! Second Screens and the Olympics, Ch. 1

Dear Readers:

I thought Shazam was nuts to make their first big second-screen play in the US at the Super Bowl (but they pulled it off). But neither I nor anybody else in the second-screen space truly understood the concept of "insane" until this past weekend, with the Olympics. We had (at last count) eight different NBC-owned channels, 10 different second-screen platforms, and at least four different devices--a total of 22 different variables. So if I'm remembering my 8th grade algebra, that's 2 to the 22nd power minus one: something approaching 4.2 million different combinations.

So knowing that I was going to do a three-part series on Second Screens and the Olympics, I asked some friends to help review the applications. And since I have a soft spot for the second screen--and I'm probably more willing to put up with software glitches and funky UI's--I felt some fresh eyes would benefit our readers.

Over the next two weeks we'll be looking at the leading second-screen providers: Shazam, GetGlue, Viggle, ConnecTV, TVplus, IntoNow, Watch With eBay, Miso, zeebox (in the UK) and NBC's own second-screen efforts. And we will hear from some of the brightest minds in the business: Ben Collins, Beth Harrison, Pete Brown, Will Kreth, Enzo D'Anna, Lou Borrelli, Tracy Geist and Steve Ste. Marie.

Today we'll pick up some glittering generalities that apply to most, if not all, of the second-screen providers who are active at the Olympics.

1. ACR is dead (or dying). And not surprisingly this is confirmed by my operator friends who are getting ready to release API's that allow a "handshake" between the set-top box and the handheld device. Miso did that with DirecTV last year, and when the viewer changes channels on his DirecTV box, Miso changes along with it. With ACR, you need to check-in or listen every time you change channels. So at the Olympics, with a cluster of digital channels that NBC pulled together, the ACR-dependent apps frequently drew a blank. No channel ID; no sync. Just a "please try again" message. Assuming the operators would map those new channels, set-top box sync would eliminate that problem.

2. Automation Ain't Enough--Part 1. It's true that nobody could afford to run this business if you had kids in sneakers actually doing everything. But when it comes to specific pieces of information that you reveal to the consumer, a little oversight should be provided. This is a private message to the provider who brags that 1,453 people (not friends,, mind you--people) are watching this program with me. This is television, gang; we measure our audiences in seven and eight digits. And then there was the provider who asked "Which Olympic champion's collapse was the most surprising," and proudly announced that 0% agreed with each of the three answers. And finally one provider simply lost all the NBC-owned channels from its program guide for most of Sunday afternoon; everything else worked--just not NBC. If anybody was paying attention (besides me and my buddies), these issues would have been caught and corrected.

3. Automation Ain't Enough--Part 2. When you combine ACR "check-in" with fully automated content, you get some interesting consumer messages: "You are watching Soccer, Beach Volleyball, Volleyball, Equestrian, Shooting, Archery, Handball, Table Tennis, Badminton." (I actually got that message, and oh by the way, it doesn't fit in a Twitter check-in!) That means that the guide data reflects what NBC said is going to appear during that FOUR HOUR BLOCK. And that's fine, unless I actually want to learn about one of the gymnasts. But if the second-screen application doesn't know what I'm watching right now, they can't give me specific information. Now at least one provider--zeebox, currently available in the UK and slated to launch in the US soon--uses a combination of guide data, closed-caption keywords and human beings to provide viewers with information that is relevant to what they're watching.

4. It might actually make a difference. This one is substantially above my pay-grade, so I'm asking folks in the research-and-data-crunching side of the business to help. I saw some Twitter data that showed spikes at specific times during the speducious (I don't know if that's a word, but if you just say it, it sounds right) Friday night Olympic opening ceremonies. And then I got some audience trending data for NBC that SUGGESTS a cause-and-effect between social media and real-time tune-in. We know that a television audience builds over time for social media hits like "The Vampire Diaries." But seeing an immediate audience spike when a million people tweet "James Bond and the Queen just jumped out of a helicopter" takes everything we're doing to a new level. And it should make the content providers, the second-screen providers, and their respective investors salivate!

Next week we'll look at the content provided by the second-screen gang. Does it enhance, detract, excite or simply bore the audience?