The iTV Doctor Is In! The Shape of Things to Come, Part 2

Dear Readers:

Dontcha just love Fall? Football's cranking up, baseball is into the post-season, and the traditional new TV season has just begun. And with the new season comes innovation in the interactive television arena.
I had a chance to sample some of that innovation this past Sunday night: "Modern Family Live" on USA Network, powered by the good people at iPowow. It was an elegantly simple application, with some serious business twists. And their form of interactive television appears to be the Shape of Things to Come.
But first, a little perspective.
Recently, a couple of the major network families have made pronouncements that heavily produced second-screen experiences were falling out of favor. Those applications can take months to produce, eating up resources could be better used in more profitable pursuits. And evidence shows that, with the exception of live and "tent-pole" events, heavily produced second-screen experiences are actually distracting to the viewers.
But the one interactive genre that has continued to deliver results at a reasonable cost is Participation Television--voting, polling and games.  
And now we have a new twist, as evidenced by "Modern Family Live" on USA Network: Participation Television for off-network syndicated programming. "Modern Family" on USA Network is not first-run; that was on ABC. But the programmers and marketers at USA Network made the decision that viewer participation in shows that the audience may have previously seen could result in a larger engaged audience. And for advertisers, those words are solid gold.

And just to make it even MORE interesting, syndicated episodes of "Modern Family" are also running nightly on a patchwork quilt of local broadcast stations.

Alexandra Shapiro, EVP of marketing and digital at USA Network, commented: "By socially enabling 90+ 'Modern Family' episodes via USA Sync as well as 'Modern Family Live' on Sundays, we are able to offer a new layer of fan engagement and interactivity that enhances the viewer experience and enables deeper exploration into the characters and world of 'Modern Family.'"

Jesse Redniss, outgoing SVP of digital for USA Network, referenced his final project in this comment on Tumbr: "We partnered with iPowow to build 'Modern Family Live,' which takes the second-screen en'game'ment experience and brings it into a fully integrated 'Unified Screen' experience where graphics, trivia, polls and player leader boards are displayed through the night every Sunday night from 9 to 11 for a 4 episode block of 'Modern Family.'"
On Sunday night, the set-up was straightforward. USA Network had been promoting "Modern Family Live" online and on screen for weeks. During the program viewers were directed to to participate and win prizes over the course of four episodes that ran from 9:00 to 11:00PM Eastern.


The questions were easy for most viewers. As a first-time "Modern Family" viewer (Shocking! Scandalous! Sorry, I don't usually watch sitcoms), I struggled a bit. Some questions were about a specific point in time during the episode: "How good was your best lie? Epic or Pitiful?" (My answer was obvious; I'm in the cable business. My Best Lie was EPIC!)

Other questions were about cast members: "How many children does Sofia Vergera have in real life?" Viewers could vote, and see the voting results on their second screens (it worked on EVERY second screen), and a few times per episode the results appeared on air.
At the end of the evening, the top five participants who had logged in via Facebook were flashed on the TV screen, with the highest score winning a "Modern Family" Prize Pack. And just like that, Facebook is a part of the television game.

The questions came in a little fast for my taste, probably because I was watching, playing and taking notes. And each voting module stayed live for about 30 seconds. So if the "Modern Family" laughs are fast-paced, so was the viewer participation.
After I caught my breath, I got iPowow chief creative officer Gavin Douglas on the horn, and we chatted a bit.

Gavin Douglas

iTV Doctor: Gavin, that was great fun. But let's learn a bit about iPowow. Where do you come from, what do you do, and what's with that name?
Gavin Douglas: Thanks, Rick. Well, iPowow first hit the TV screens in Australia and we now have offices and clients based in LA, New York, Canada and Europe. Right from day one, our aim was clear: we wanted to give millions of people, watching their favorite TV show at home, the power to simultaneously engage with that story in real time. This is the rise of "Participation TV 2.0." Instead of just participating by texting a vote, we allow the TV producers to reveal the viewers' emotions and opinions live on the TV screen, affecting the outcome and changing the story, every second.

The name iPowow actually came from the Native American concept of having a 'powwow' around the campfire and everyone being able to voice their opinion. Now that television is the campfire that we gather around, iPowow allows all the viewers at home to voice their opinion in the TV story.
iTV Doctor: "Modern Family Live" is obviously not your first time on television. What else have you done?

Gavin Douglas: iPowow hit the ground running in the US a couple of years ago on NBC's "Miss Universe." Viewers from over 155 countries engaged with the live show in real time on their second screens and registered over 23 million votes in under 9 minutes. For the past year we've been on SportsCenter, plus 4 other live shows on ESPN. Other clients and partners include Fox Sports, the 7 News Network, NASCAR, Red Bull, Quiksilver and a few others across the globe. Our average level of viewer engagement is passing 10%, against an industry average of 2%.

As for taped TV shows, iPowow has partnered with "Project Runway" on Lifetime, "Dragons' Den" on CBC, and now with "Modern Family" on USA Network. For us, "Modern Family Live" is a very significant milestone in the transformation of television into Participation TV. This is the first time that viewers of a TV show can login through Facebook, play the game in sync with the story on the TV, compete with their friends, win prizes and then see their Facebook name and profile picture revealed on television at the end of the night. We believe this is the start of a big shift towards increased viewer participation, with the aim of driving ratings.

The key for us is having great, innovative partners. Without the team at USA Network wanting to push the boundaries of television, we would never have been a part of such an innovative shift towards playing TV, rather than just watching TV.
iTV Doctor: Did "Modern Family Live" require a group of kids in sneakers behind the scenes (as is often the case with live participation content)?
Gavin Douglas: No. In fact, we always aim to do the opposite. The production side of iPowow is run by former TV producers with decades of experience making television around the world. And our team of engineers created iPowow's second-screen platform with one aim in mind: to enhance the story of the TV show without the TV producers needing to hire a group of kids in sneakers.

The most important factor for a second-screen platform in a TV network is "ease of use." Instead of the usual need to create masses of new second-screen content and then the need to moderate the flow of viewer-created content back onto the TV, the iPowow platform can easily be operated by one smart intern. And, with some of our clients, it is one kid wearing sneakers.

Then, once the client is happy that their TV show and iPowow viewer engagement are running smoothly, we can turn on the automation and remove the need for the people in the studio. All you have to do is plug in the questions and the iPowow platform drives itself in sync with the TV story.
iTV Doctor: Who wrote the questions?
Gavin Douglas: It's important that the questions are always written and controlled by the people who know the content the best: in other words, the team at USA Network themselves. In the case of "Modern Family Live," the team are doing a great job at embedding their compelling questions and trivia into the second-by-second story of the show, which makes the engagement relevant and more exciting for the viewer.

It sounds obvious, but a weak storyline loses TV viewers, while a compelling story creates great ratings, which generates increased advertising revenue. That's the bottom line. iPowow was created as a storytelling tool because, when designing a second-screen engagement for the viewers, we need to remember that we are in the entertainment business. That means Social Media for TV needs to be designed for TV and by TV people, not by app developers. Story was, is, and always will be, the most important aspect of what we do.

iTV Doctor: What do you think Participation TV from iPowow means to the industry? Can we basically do this anywhere? Anytime?
Gavin Douglas: Harnessing the power of Participation TV to drive viewer engagement and uptick ratings can be done anywhere, anytime on any TV story. iPowow is already helping TV networks to successfully engage viewers, second by second, in live sports, live news, reality shows, sitcoms, chat shows and even in long-form documentaries. Consumers are snacking on TV content and at the same time the viewers are being distracted by their second screens. Given the opportunity, fans want to interact with the story of their favorite TV show, as long as it's fun, exciting and easy to use.
iTV Doctor: I understand you have some "tweaks" (not to be confused with twerks...) planned for the next couple of weeks.


Gavin Douglas: We're working closely with the team at USA Network to make the "Modern Family Live" experience more and more compelling for the viewers. The plan is to add an on-air Facebook leaderboard after the second episode for a total of 2 leaderboards in the Sunday block. They'll be adding additional on-air interactions--up to 3 per episode. And also moving the first on-air poll earlier in each episode to encourage viewers to jump in and participate right from the start.
iTV Doctor: So what's next? When do you start involving advertisers?
Gavin Douglas: To us, it seems as though advertisers have already recognized the power of connecting their brand directly with the TV viewer on the second screen. We have had great success with brands in Australia, North America and Europe and we believe advertisers are now actively looking for shows with high levels of viewer engagement, because those shows provide not just advertising opportunities, but brand enhancements. The list of brands already using iPowow to connect with the TV viewer includes Vodafone, Quiksilver, State Farm, Red Bull and others.

For an advertiser, having a TV viewer physically and emotionally engage with the brand while they participate in their favorite TV show is the Holy Grail. What advertiser doesn't want to be associated with a cool and exciting TV game experience? This opens up huge Social Commerce possibilities and a direct relationship with the consumer. We believe that, when used properly, the Second Screen and Participation TV can enable the TV audience to be more than just viewers; they are now part of the story.


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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