Jun 24, 2013

The Door To The Second Screen May Be Through The First

Despite the fervent wishes of just about everyone in the second screen industry, consumers have been slow to adopt any of the tablet and smartphone-based companion apps created for TV. It doesn’t seem to matter much what functionality the apps offer: discovery, additional content, social intercourse or remote control: the number of viewers willing to both download them and then use them on a regular basis has remained quite small*

Which has me thinking that perhaps it’s not the apps themselves as much as the devices on which we’ve trapped them.

We watch TV, for the most part, on the largest screen available. And by “available” I mean “in the room we wish to be in, unlikely to result in a counterclaim being proffered by someone else in the room who wishes to watch a different program, and with the ability to view the actual program the user wishes to watch on the actual large screen TV set.” (The latter not always being possible given the tangle of rights issues in the US TV industry.)

We also don’t always watch. At least not actively. There’s an oft-quoted Nielsen stat about how 84% of people are using their tablets while they are watching TV. Which generally means “checking their email or posting something on Facebook because they’re not all that engaged with whatever’s on TV.” And even though there are stats showing that many people have looked up information about shows on their tablets while they are watching said shows there’s nothing to indicate that this is habitual behavior versus a one time “what’s the name of the actor playing the sister, go look it up on IMDb” sort of thing.

Which may just be human nature. The lure of multitasking is a big one. There are numerous apps designed to help people stay focused on the work they are doing rather than drifting off to Facebook or cute puppy blogs or whatnot. And those same forces are at play when using the tablet as a second screen app: unless it’s a show you are seriously involved with, it’s way too easy to pull away from the TV app to reply to the email that just came in from your boss because, after all, having the TV app open doesn’t simultaneously shut down email. Or Facebook or Twitter. Or Angry Birds.

Which leads us back to the first screen as a way to solve for all of that distraction.

What if all that supplementary content the networks are (allegedly) creating was available on an opt-in basis via the first screen. So that while Big Bang Theory was playing on 75% of the screen’s 55 inches, that additional content would be available on the remaining 25%. It would be content that’s meant to be viewed alongside the show and that didn’t necessarily require any sort of additional interaction to enjoy, very much in the manner of VH1’s Pop-Up video or the HBO Game of Thrones iPad app (which is second screen in name only - it requires you to watch the show on the same screen as the additional content, thus making that the first screen.)

That sort of set-up would be attractive to hard-core fans of the show who were looking for deeper levels of bonding and to people who were only half-watching the show, as the additional content may prove more interesting to them than the original content. It wouldn’t be that much of a disruption as we’re already used to the partial screen concept from news channels like CNN and today’s super-sized TVs offer plenty of space for both main event and extras.

The challenge would be designing a system that was intuitive enough for viewers outside the early adopter cohort, because until those people start using it, second screen, or anything resembling second screen, is only going to be a pipe dream. That challenge is made all the more challenging by the current state of today’s remote control devices, whose UI choices defy logic and which vary from maker to maker, MVPD to MVPD, making an easy way to turn the extra content on and off a serious challenge.

That’s where an actual second screen app may come into play. Both to initiate turning the first screen additional content on and off, and, once it’s up there, to interact with it. (Because for certain types of programming, polls and quizzes are always going to be an option.)

That app could also serve as a program guide/DVR/recommendation engine that would appear on the big screen, but would also allow users to get recommendations/program their DVRs/watch TV directly from their tablets when there was no big screen option. (Which would rely on the networks and MVPDs finally coming to an agreement on TV Everywhere, but I digress.) That could be anytime from your office to the kitchen table to the floor of the den because your mom wants to watch Dancing With The Stars and you’d rather watch the Laker game.

I still firmly believe that program guide functionality is what’s going to get the mass of viewers over to the second screen: it’s just easier to control your TV from a touch screen device that already has a built-in keyboard. Plus there’s only so much we can do with voice commands and then there’s the psychological hook: talk to the machine and it feels like you are telling it to do something for you. Tap it or swipe it, and it feels like you are doing the work. That’s not a conscious perception, but it’s an important distinction that may make some people uncomfortable with relying on voice commands.

The trick to mass adoption may be as simple as keeping viewers attention focused on the same screen as the program they’re watching, whatever that screen might be. It goes against a lot of what we currently believe about first screen/second screen interaction, but given second screen’s current failure to launch, it’s well worth looking into.

*Yes, there is a Dutch TV show that has a second screen app that something like 25% of the population of the Netherlands is currently using. It’s a way to play along with a popular quiz show at home (and win valuable prizes) that makes me think it’s a clever exception rather than success story #1.

Jun 13, 2013

Cablevision, New Jersey Transit and the Rise of TV Everywhere

There's news today that Cablevision and New Jersey Transit have just signed a deal for Cablevision to introduce WiFi service onto all NJT trains. (By 2016, but hey, you can't have everything.)

Now as a daily NJT commuter, I was thrilled to read this on a personal level, but it's the potential impact on the TV industry that's really got my interest piqued.

What this offers is one of the first examples of a legitimate use case for regular out-of-home TV viewing. As I've noted in previous posts, outside of live sports, there just aren't that many places where you'd watch TV away from home. (It's not like you are going to go down to Starbucks to watch "Game of Thrones" on your iPad. And most people don't travel for work as much as the readers of this blog likely do.)

Countries where out of home viewing is popular tend to have public transportation systems with either WiFi or really good 4G. The US has neither. That's why the Cablevision/NJ Transit deal could really be the start of something. Most NJT riders have fairly lengthy rides (upwards of 30 minutes) and so plenty of time to sit and either watch live TV or an entire program that they'd recorded on their DVR.

A lot will depend on how much bandwidth you're getting, as anyone who's ever tried to fire up HBO Go in a hotel room can attest to, but assuming it's good quality and doesn't have multiple dead zones, we could be seeing the start of a whole new behavior pattern.

In New Jersey, anyway.

Jun 7, 2013

The Not So Secret Life of the American Teenager

There’s been so much written lately about teenagers in the age of social media, so much of it patently ridiculous (e.g. I talked to my sister and her friends and thus extrapolated what all teenagers were up to) and/or posited by people who haven’t actually seen a teenager since they themselves were one, that I felt a tirade was in order. So here goes:

What’s the one constant about teenagers, of any generation, beyond the whole horniness thing? The fact that so many teens are constantly trying on new personalities and new identities just to see what it feels like or to see what fits. And so what apps they are into varies wildly from day to day, from school to school, from clique to clique and (especially) from girls to boys.

Facebook is the one constant. They may tell you they don’t really like it, don’t like seeing the dumb things people post on it, but reality check: so do most adults. And like teens, we may gripe about it, but we still use it.

Why? Because it’s its own self-contained theme park. You can chat, you can play games, you can look at pictures, listen to music, stalk old friends-- there’s a whole world of things you can do on Facebook depending on your mood. And everyone you know is on there, from Grandma to the kid you sat next to in kindergarten, so it’s got the same repellers and attractors as home. Especially if you’re 15 and undecided whether it’s comforting or mortifying that your mom “liked” your picture from soccer practice.

Apps are like teenage fashion choices. One day you’re wearing Ugg boots because they’re cool and trendy, the next day you decide they’re stupid and pretentious and want nothing to do with them. Substitute Pinterest or Twitter or Snapchat and you get the picture. And that shouldn’t be the least bit surprising: teenagers are like that, they’re capricious about pretty much everything from friends to music to the mood they’re in when they get home. And they have been like that since we invented them back in the 1950s.

So let’s stop trying to define them and assigning them a specific taste in apps. Vine is hot this month because comedians are making funny videos/hipsters are making cool artsy videos/someone was playing with it in study hall and everyone started watching/my older brother and his friends said it was cool.

Next month it’ll be something else.

Which is not to say that every teenager is doomed to spend their middle school and high school years in a permanent state of app flux. Sometimes it feels right and so you stick with it. But what that “it” is varies so widely, it’s foolish to try and define. The one thing we do know is that the next Facebook isn’t here yet. Facebook still feels like “home” and with the possible exception of Instagram and Snapchat, all the other apps are about interacting with others or about being entertained. None of them are the new Facebook, either singly or in combination.

The new Facebook won’t be here for a while: sea changes like that don’t come about very often. But when it does, don’t worry about trying to identify it: like the Supreme Court said about pornography, you’ll know it when you see it.

Jun 5, 2013

The Perils Of DIY Development

“We’re just going to build it ourselves.”

There are few words more disheartening to a tech company than a potential client who decides to build something on their own.

It’s easy to understand why: there’s an IT director who’s constantly having to battle the impression that his only function is to fix the printer when it breaks down. Who looks at the product, gets a sense of what it does and decides he can figure out how to build it for half the price the external vendor wants to charge him.

There’s the marketing team, who wants to bring in their preferred design team and who want to be able to control the look and feel of the site/app, control they believe they’ll lose if they bring in an outside vendor.

Then there’s the CFO, who looks at the bottom line and sees a significant savings from taking things in house.

So what’s the catch?

Building things internally can be very cost effective... if you’re going to leave your site or app up for two to three months or less. After that, it’s not. You’ve got to factor in the cost of maintaining, upgrading, updating and keeping everything up to date with the current operating system. That means every time Apple upgrades the iOS, you’ve got to upgrade your app or site too. New functionality (e.g. voice commands) suddenly becoming popular and a must-have? Your problem.

And the reason why it’s truly your problem is that you likely don’t have a full time staff of engineers on hand. So you’ve had to outsource pieces of the project, if not the whole thing, and now you’ve got to hire new engineers and hope that they can figure out the code the first group wrote.

That’s particularly true if you hired a design shop to design the site and let them do the buildout for you. The UX may be beautiful and the design cutting edge, but if the underlying code isn’t up to snuff, you’re in trouble once you move to version 2.0.

That’s why it makes sense to hire a company that specializes in building and maintaining whatever it is you’re launching. Because then all those updates are their problem. Or not so much of a problem, since they anticipate those sort of changes and are able to roll out updates more efficiently and cost-effectively since they’re writing the code for a range of projects, not just yours. That keeps costs down and makes sure you stay up to date in a timely fashion.

One caveat here is that many of the these builders and/or systems integrators view design and UX as a necessary evil, which is the last thing you want to hear if you’re in the entertainment business. That’s why (shameless plug alert!) KIT has invested in a top-notch UX and design department: we want to be the ones who help design the app or site, build it and maintain it.

Which makes us a rarity: most design shops don’t excel at building, most builders don’t excel at design. To get both in one company is a luxury, but that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice: rather than give short shrift to one of these options, you’d do well to hire two companies, one to design and one to build and maintain. It may not sound like the most cost-effective move, but it the long run, it will be worth it as you’ll have a well-designed site that operates and updates smoothly.