For all the hype that surrounds the launch of nearly everything at the intersection of media and technology, it's rare to hear a post-mortem that looks back in the cold, hard light of reality. Which is why it was such a treat to watch (via livestream) Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media and chief product officer at Disney-ABC Television Group, speak Wednesday at the Banff World Media Festival.
Since his division has been at the leading edge of many of the trends transforming the digital video world, his remarks offered a welcome retrospective on everything from being TV's first entry on Apple's iTunes to the first companion app synchronizing content and TV, for ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (which was preceded by a trial for short-lived 2010 series "My Generation").
The latter example proved particularly interesting considering that the social-TV craze that followed the companion app might want to heed some of the reservations Cheng expressed about the space, which he characterized as currently being in a "frothy experimental stage." Though he's bullish on the future of this technology, he said there's a currently a limited audience.
"From the data we have seen so far, we are addressing a small percentage of people who are sort of, you know, reaching out for these sort of things," he said. "It is not exactly a widely adopted behavior."
In lieu of a truly mass audience, the real appeal of second screen is attracting marketers to an opportunity to extend their buys beyond the 30-second spot.
Speaking particularly of the "Anatomy" app, Cheng said ABC learned that scripted programming doesn't lend itself as well to companion apps as live events like the Oscars.
"Overall when you asked them whether it added to or enhanced the overhaul experience, in part, yeah, kind of neutral on that," he said. "In some cases it distracted them from watching the show. Audio cues come up during a major scene, you look down and you realize that you missed a key piece of (dialogue)."
Part of the problem also is on the cost side. ABC wanted the writers of "Anatomy" to be involved in supplying the extra content that flowed through the app, but the expense doesn't justify the return, particularly when you factor in the cost of scaling up to more than one show.
"For scripted, I would say we still have more work to do," said Cheng. "I don't think we cracked the code on that. There may be a model out there that will work, maybe during commercials. Definitely not synchronous while you are watching the show."
Cheng believes mobile devices like the iPad represent a unique opportunity for traditional media companies like ABC to recapture the mind share they lost in the PC era, first to portals like Yahoo and then social networks like Facebook. Given these categories haven't extended their dominance (at least yet) on tablets, where content companies' expertise in video and advertising can give them an edge in re-establish their primacy in the media ecosystem.
I do think media companies have an opportunity to really drive a lot of the lion share of that in the mobile space," he said. "I would argue for the broadcaster, for the cable network, for the content company, this is a place where we know. We have always been in the business of programming, content — it is in our DNA. In order to capture that market, let's make sure that we are deploying technology."
But for all the importance of tablets to Cheng, don't look for ABC anytime on Android-powered devices–even though they might outnumber iOs-centric wireless screens. Fragmentation across Google's myriad versions of its operating system is something he's currently not prepared to service.
"There will be some devices left out because we can't get to them," he said. "That will be a disadvantage, I think, for Android users down the line. Google can figure out how to wrangle some standards in place that we can actually develop content on."
Wireless devices represent an opportunity to rethink the traditional mode of video delivery–namely, that post-dinner period of relaxation known as "primetime"– and reinvent it for programming all together new viewing opportunities that are far afield from conventional TV.
"What digital has done has created a lot more variety of use cases," he said. "If we can figure out that, then we actually have a huge growth of opportunity before us."