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TV taps companion apps

More nets synch up their social-TV strategy

TV is developing a split personality.

A growing number of channels are fielding apps on smartphones and tablets to supplement TV shows with extra content synchronized to be relevant to what’s occurring on the television screen.

These so-called companion apps pump out everything from insta-polls to exclusive photos and videos intended to appeal to viewers already using second screens during broadcasts to engage in social media.

MTV is the latest and perhaps most ambitious network to unveil a companion experience: Its WatchWith app supports its entire primetime lineup. Sister net VH1 launched a similar Co-Star app back in May. Weather Channel did the same for one series, “From the Edge With Peter Lik.”

Three of the broadcast nets were even earlier to the game, though they’ve been selective, too. The NBCLive app will return this fall in support of four series while Fox has a companion app just for “Bones” and ABC for “Grey’s Anatomy.” Fox will try another for new series “Terra Nova,” and ABC will likely add as well.

These apps — some of which double as standalone websites — could be easily dismissed at this early stage as experimental frills. The networks aren’t offering numbers on how many viewers are downloading and visiting nor are they hyping how much sampling is going on.

But companion apps have real strategic value to the TV business. As options for delayed viewing including DVR, VOD and the Web bring with them the potential for cannibalizing the audience for the premiere window, where a TV show makes most of its money, nets need to incentivize watching shows the first time around.

“We want them to watch the shows when they first air,” said Colin Helms, VP of MTV Digital. “If you miss the show and talk about it later, you miss out on its currency.”

While the real-time watercooler conversation that Twitter and Facebook brings to TV goes a long way to protecting the premiere window, it can also present a distraction from commercials. Companion apps hold the promise of providing a cross-screen extension to the advertising that may be ignored on TV. MTV’s WatchWith is just a few months away from moving to that format.

Social media is also integrated into companion apps to keep in a branded environment the conversations that otherwise might occur on platforms where engagement with the program can’t be monetized. What’s more, some of these apps improve on the chaos that a hotspot like Twitter can often become by providing a curated feed capable of weeding out repeat messages and obscenities.

The companion app isn’t an entirely new notion. Before apps were even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, there was a similar rush about a decade ago among many of the same networks experimenting today to turn laptop and desktop computers into a viable second screen.

But for all its promise, what was loosely known then as “interactive television” petered out amid modest consumer uptake and significant technical and financial complexities.

“We use the words ‘interactive television’ very carefully today because for a lot of people in this business, their hair stands up on end when you say that term,” said Scott Rosenberg, a 15-year veteran of interactive TV formerly of Gemstar-TV Guide.

What’s driving the second screen this time is that devices like the iPad are becoming living-room fixtures. Nielsen found that 70% of tablet owners and 68% of smartphone owners used their devices in the first quarter of the year while watching TV, far more than they did with other activities including commuting.

But what exactly they are doing with those devices is another matter. One study found that 80% of what people do online while watching TV is unrelated to what they’re watching. The TV biz is hoping that’s a reflection of the absence of companion apps.

But this technology isn’t strictly the domain of TV programmers. A fleet of startups like TVPlus want in on the action either as independent companion services or white-label vendors for networks to use. Rosenberg is leading a new company, Umami, playing both sides of that field. He believes consumers shouldn’t have to download multiple apps when a firm like his can develop a one-stop shop for everyone.

However, the nets have a huge advantage in their access to producers, talent and scripts. But Vivi Zigler, president of NBC Universal Digital Entertainment, acknowledges that as labor-intensive as developing content for companion apps is, there’s probably room for collaboration.

“You never want to be closed to the notion of third-party solutions but we like the idea of providing it ourselves to our fans,” she said.

That these apps are springing up on a second screen is somewhat counterintuitive considering other hot tech trends would point to a one-screen solution: connected TVs and newfangled set-tops like Google TV. The new breed of Internet-linked sets wowed the past few Consumer Electronics Shows with their ability to allow Web-like interactivity for couch potatoes.

But for all that category’s fantastical growth projections, tablets and smartphones are more commonplace in the short term. “It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where this goes,” Zigler said. “As we develop technology, we look at what’s going on with connected TVs, but it’s a very low base right now.”

HBO employs a one-screen alternative to companion apps on its digital-only platform HBO Go. “Game of Thrones” is synched to extra content that helps explain its sprawling storylines. “Boardwalk Empire” will get the same treatment when its second season launches in the fall.

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