Almost a third of us now own a tablet, and a majority are looking at either a smartphone or a tablet while watching TV. With our attention diverted from the main screen, the traditional TV ecosystem is falling apart.
The BBC iPlayer and Sky Go Extra now offer downloads to iOS gear, Panasonic has unveiled an app that allows the viewing of a second TV channel on a tablet app if you buy one of its new twin HD tuner TVs, and 'companion' apps from Zeebox to Twitter and Shazam are changing the way we interact with TV.
There are seismic shifts happening in how society uses technology for entertainment, and it's not escaped the attention of broadcasters. Now they're beginning to respond to our habits; a second screen revolution is happening in homes, but the content owners are not about to leave things to chance.
Second screen viewing falls into a few different camps. The first, and by far the most embedded form of second screen use is the BBC iPlayer. With 174 million requests during December 2012 – a 22 percent increase on the previous year – this pioneering catch-up TV app is the standard bearer around the globe.
"Go to Asia and America and people are talking about the iPlayer as best practice, about how they're doing, and how it's operating," says Carl Hibbert, Head of Broadcast Research at analyst firm Futuresource Consulting. "The free-to-air broadcasters are almost being led by iPlayer, it's a real flagship product around the world."
The likes of ITV Player (321 million views for first 9 months of 2012, a 23 percent increase) and 4OD (136 million views in the first three months of 2012, a 10 percent increase) have apps on smartphones and tablets, though these commercial broadcasters offer a mix of pre-roll adverts (4OD) and post-window payment (programmes on ITV Player are only free in the initial seven day catch-up period). Virgin Media's TV Anywhere app for TiVo offers live TV streaming so you can watch one while you, err, watch another.
In an effort to challenge the likes of Netflix – which is increasing its offering beyond films to stream exclusive TV series like House of Cards – the BBC recently announced that it was to broadcast around 40 hours of TV shows online before its initial terrestrial broadcast. That tells you all you need to know about how in flux the industry is.
Moving to downloads
Streaming catch-up TV over WiFi or 3G on an app is one thing, but the iPlayer has recently begun offering downloads through its iOS apps that are good for 30 days. For those who travel frequently, it's an absolute boon. "Everyone likes to talk about broadband and online viewing, but we don't have access to the internet all the time," says Hibbert. "You can probably can get some of it over 3G, but people are on restrictive data plans. We'll possibly see more experimentation from operators on downloads." For £5 a month for existing Sky subscribers, Sky Go Extra now offers downloads, too.
The problem all commercial broadcasters have with downloads is less one of negotiating different rights from the content owners and more to do with the danger of severing their links to viewers. "If it's downloaded you've effectively lost a direct connection," says Hibbert. "If that consumer doesn't watch that content for 20 days, is the pre-roll advertising that was inserted at the time of download still relevant? If they're not relevant, then is the advertiser willing to pay?"
The iPlayer, of course, doesn't have such thorny issues to worry about. There are, however, some innovative attempts to bolster the first screen and bring the second screen in-sync with it, and so all the while preserving that link that advertisers demand.
Social & interactive TV apps
One relatively recent innovation is the social or companion app. There are several available, with Zeebox – which is partly owned by Sky, ComCast and NBCUniversal – one of the most well-known, though there are others, like the US-centric GetGlue. Zeebox is basically a platform to chat about live TV shows and follow celebrities' TV-watching habits, though it's most skilful at showing where 'the buzz' is. It was invaluable during the Olympics when it was often difficult to keep-up with where and when a plucky Brit might make a play for a medal. Zeebox on a smartphone or tablet also remotely controls a Sky or Virgin TiVo box as well as smart TVs from Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG, and fully integrates with Twitter.
The second screen thus far is a place to surf the web or YouTube, watch catch-up TV, or join-in a Twitter debate about a live TV show, but getting apps in-sync with a live TV broadcast is where interactive apps could really come alive.
UK tech start-up Capablue has worked with Channel 4 and others on ways to develop engaging yet properly targeted, unobtrusive second screen advertising, including for Fonejacker and Made In Chelsea. So far they've been largely proof of concept apps, but the technology is intriguing and already polished; Capablue's Connected platform uses audio watermarking to synchronise with a linear broadcast. The mic on a phone or tablet hears the audio watermark and cross-references that with a cloud database to have the app showing content related to the relevant few seconds of the TV broadcast. It works for live TV, +1 channels and time-shift recordings.
Audio watermarking also underpins the BBC's new 'guess the value of the really old thing' Antiques Roadshow Playalong app that activates only when the programme is being broadcast live, while music recognition service Shazam can now trigger advertising overlays where audio watermarks exist in 'first screen' adverts.
Micro games, adverts and links to catch-up TV content are one thing but when will 'second screen' interactive apps move beyond mere novelty and experiments? "When they start to make money," Tom Cape, CEO of Copablue, told TechRadar about this completely new space for advertisers and broadcasters. "We will see a move from 'content' apps – ones which provide additional content as part of 360-degree commissioning – to ones that actually are built to promote and monetize TV better."
For now the watermarking requires producer or broadcaster involvement to place the tags, so third-party apps would lack syncing capability. However, there's nothing to stop the technology spreading. "Third party apps could work with advertising if watermarks are placed in adverts by the media agencies," says Cape. A third party that wants to provide synced content must encode all forms of live TV on the hoof with its own digital fingerprint, which is exactly what a rival video watermarking system called TVsync does.
Based on a system designed to track the progress of pirated video content around the internet, Vobile's TVsync system monitors hundreds of thousands of TV each day, automatically inserting a unique digital fingerprint in every single movie and live TV broadcast. With an app opened, point a smartphone or tablet's camera at any content playing on a TV screen, laptop, phone or other tablet, and the fingerprint in that video is recognised. Second screen content – or a website – is immediately launched.
The system has the downside of requiring line-of-dight to the TV, though it also works with a single frame of video, as well as audio.
TVSync isn't a consumer product, but instead a technology – like TiVo – that could end-up in apps, smart TVs and set-top boxes offered by well-known providers. "Imagine this embedded on a smart TV chip, synchronising and monitoring – and recording – what's on and what's being watched," says Devon Child, Vice President of Products & Solutions at Vobile.
Whether viewers will actively reach for a smartphone to trigger extra content is debatable, but new services that requires only the microphones on handheld devices to be switched-on at all times are passive enough to catch-on (security concerns aside). Either way, perhaps it's time we swapped 'smart TV' for 'smart screens' as we prepare for the second screen's second coming.