The iTV Doctor Is In!: Second Screens and the Olympics, Ch. 3

Dear Readers:

I intended to write this wrap-up column on Second Screens and the Olympics on Monday. But the events of Saturday morning suggested to me that a preface was in order. Let me also say that, in additional to being a baseball junkie, I am a news junkie. And my college journalism mentor is never far from my shoulder.
Mitt Romney announced on Friday that he would be announcing his VP pick on Saturday morning from Norfolk, VA. All the news outlets--print, radio, television and digital--had plenty of advance notice.
So there I was in my office, surrounded by my four screens (HDTV, laptop, iPhone and iPad). I had my local NBC affiliate on television, having previously watched the "Today" show (a guilty morning pleasure). And promptly at 9:00 AM, NBC went to the "NBC News Special Report." So to get a bit of background on the VP pick (Paul Ryan), I fired up my collection of second-screen apps, and not one, NOT A SINGLE ONE, could sync with that special report. A few thought I was watching the regularly scheduled NBC Saturday morning kids' shows, one reckoned that it sounded like "Imus in the Morning" on Fox Business. And one other correctly identified the live audio (which was a shared feed carried by all the broadcast networks), but attributed it to the CBS morning show.
Admittedly the Saturday morning television audience is normally small, but I suspect that Romney's supporters were tuned in that morning en-masse. And while the second-screen producers were probably sleeping in after two weeks of intense Olympic work, this was News. And when you're working in television, connected to television, or producing complementary content for television, you have a responsibility to the public.
Will McAvoy (HBO's "The Newsroom") would never let this happen.

OK--on to the Olympics.
Our 17-day review of the second-screen providers (zeebox, Shazam, Viggle, ConnecTV, IntoNow and Watch With eBay) was great fun, and appeared to unearth some structural issues:
1) The simple ACR-driven handshake simply won't suffice as the only means to connect. It's not enough for my handheld to know what I'm watching, it needs to know what's going on at any given point in time. We are hearing from the MVPD's that their goal is to connect their set-top boxes to the handheld, generally through the customer's home network. We are hearing from ACR providers that scene-by-scene tracking (which the set-top box cannot do) will allow for richer complementary content. And lurking somewhere in the background is the possibility of the television itself actually being the "traffic cop" that communicates everything that's playing on its screen. Civolution CEO Alex Terpstra explained it this way:

"What we currently see in the US is mostly audio fingerprinting-based ACR to sync apps to content. What has started to become clear is that this is not as easy as it may have looked to several app developers trying to build this themselves. ACR technology must minimize false positives and false negatives, must be scalable to support many TV channels (including content from previous broadcasts), and must support millions of users approaching the system at the same time. And you may still not be able to distinguish the same content broadcast on multiple channels.

"Allowing apps to connect to set-top boxes may add value in some cases, mostly to the MVPD's themselves who control the set-top boxes. But the number of boxes able to connect to apps via the in-home WiFi network is still relatively low and this will remain a fragmented environment for quite a while.

"Over time we will also see ACR appearing in smart TV’s which allows us to address some of these challenges. In this case we can use video fingerprinting-based ACR that allows for greater accuracy because it does not have to rely on sound coming from the speakers. Combining this with other feature extraction from the video, we have better knowledge of which channel we are actually tuned to. It allows both compelling interactive applications running on the smart TV itself as well as synching second-screen apps through the in-home WiFi. The beauty is that by having this feature in the TV, it can work for any content played on the TV, regardless of its source, as long as its fingerprints exist in the ACR database. Ideally there will be a few such ACR platforms that allow for compatibility between smart-TV manufacturers, broadcasters and other content providers, and app developers."

2) An enormous amount of the second-screen content comes from a single source: Twitter. Eleanor Dowling of Bluefin Labs wrote: "There was a total of 36 million social media comments made about all the Olympics telecasts across NBCU networks. That's more than the Super Bowl, Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globes, and all seven games of the World Series combined! (36.0M to 32.7M). 97% of these comments came from public Twitter accounts, 3% from public Facebook accounts."
And recently Mike Isaac from allthingsD revealed that Twitter is making noises that suggest it is going to enforce control of how its content is displayed by third parties--trying to essentially turn the Twitter feed into a product that will have the same look and feel across all platforms and providers.

In response to my query, ConnecTV co-founder and CMO Stacy Jolna wrote:

"Strategically, by staying open and easy-to-develop-for-and-with, Twitter faces an enormous opportunity to grow its business--and spark the growth of countless other innovative new companies and users. It's early in the social sphere--too early to lock out possibilities for creative and economic expansion. In the early days of black-and-white TV, it was hard to imagine the development of MTV, CNN, FX, Showtime and HBO. Or the creation of new gaming revenue generators through Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PlayStation. In the Harvard days of Facebook, no one thought of the addictive financial possibilities of Zynga's Farmville or Mafia Wars. Or the advertising opportunities to connect friends of friends of friends in a viral, money-making matrix. Twitter will continue to be a strong platform for yet-to-be-invented new businesses and audience experiences--so long as it remains open to the possibilities of how other new companies will shape the future."

3) Creating second-screen content is harder than it looks, and is probably harder than anybody anticipated. Time Warner Cable's Will Kreth (senior director, video and content strategy) wrote about one of the apps, but his comments apply to all:

"The app promises to add depth to NBC's 2012 Olympics coverage--but ends up falling short. Using ACR technology, it can sync with one of the multiple NBC channels showing Olympic events, but once it syncs, there's little payoff or 'wow factor' to keep you using it. Sure, it has all the usual ITV sports app features--such as medal count tracker, polls, athlete bios, Twitter feeds and wire-service stories on the games--but the lack of tight integration with the particular event you happen to be watching RIGHT NOW gives you a sense that it could be any event that the app is trying to add value to. I linked my Twitter and Facebook accounts to the app through their API, but my check-in to the Men's Basketball game (USA vs. France)--who cares? Context, Context, Context--there's not a lot of it with this app; and the reward for using it could be much greater, but then, that might mean that curating--not automating--the data is what's required to make this feel like a LIVE companion app, not an aggregation of feeds, social streams and generally related content."

4) There are some heated conversations now about proving the "cause and effect" of social media and television tune-in. For example, during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, when the Queen and James Bond jumped out of a helicopter, did all the social media conversations--mostly tweets--actually generate tune-in to NBC? And can it be verified and measured? My conversations with the data folks turned up a lot (a LOT!!!) of data on either side of that equation (tweets on one side; TV audience on the other side), but nothing that could be unequivocally linked. But fear not, dear readers: it turns out your friendly neighborhood doctor might have a prescription. Watch this space for more details.

But enough proselytizing: Who were the medal winners in Second Screen App competition? We used a 10-point scale, with three major categories: Connectivity (2.5 points maximum); User Interface (2.5 points maximum); Content (5.0 points maximum).

Here are the scores, and unlike the Olympic judges, we will explain our scoring:

GOLD MEDAL: Viggle--9.0

  • 2.2 for Connectivity--fast and reliable connection to all of the NBC Olympics channels.
  • 2.4 for User Interface--the best look on the iPhone, where the limited form factor was put to best use (the Viggle iPad app is a re-purposed iPhone app).
  • 4.4 for content--Viggle Live continues to dominate the content play for second screens, with their trivia, contest and polls backed up by Viggle Rewards.


SILVER MEDAL: Shazam--8.7


  • 2.1 for Connectivity--we had trouble synching with all the NBC Olympics channels.
  • 2.3 for User Interface--actually easier to use on iPhone with a smaller screen and not as much to display; a little overwhelming on the iPad (very busy).
  • 4.3 for Content--direct access to the NBC content was a distinct advantage, and Shazam made the best of it. And the music identification for the opening and closing ceremonies was great fun!

BRONZE MEDAL: (tie) ConnecTV--8.6

  • 2.3 for Connectivity--they were able to create a handshake with the NBC Olympics channels almost every time.
  • 2.4 for User Interface--the best UI of the apps we reviewed.
  • 3.9 for Content--great shopping linkage, terrific celebrity chat (Watercooler), but most of the screen was taken with news headlines that were not always on-target. Great performance for the new kid on the block.

BRONZE MEDAL: (tie) zeebox--8.6

  • 2.3 for Connectivity--with two dozen channels to grapple with in the UK, zeebox managed to recognize and stay connected.
  • 2.3 for User Interface--clean and colorful, perhaps a little busy.
  • 4.0 for Content--particularly when moderated by humans rather than machines, the zeetags were useful, fun and on-target. Tied with ConnecTV, and not bad for a service that hasn't even launched in the US yet!

IntoNow - 8.0

  • 2.4 for Connectivity--the most reliable for all the NBC channels, and the only provider able to provide connectivity during a commercial break.
  • 2.1 for User Interface--too much going on with the iPad app; the iPhone app was better.
  • 3.5 for Content--as much as we enjoyed their new CapIt feature (and used it frequently during the closing ceremonies), that's all we used IntoNow for.

Watch With eBay--5.6

  • 1.0 for Connectivity--no sync, and the program guide lost the NBC channels during the Olympics.
  • 2.1 for User Interface--didn't try to do too much, and actually looked good.
  • 2.5 for Content--the unmoderated eBay listings were embarrassing and sometimes raunchy.

Well, that's it. Thanks for reading. We'll talk again.


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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