How Big Data Helped ABC Redesign the Second Screen Experience

When ABC became the first network to launch an app on Apple’s iPad, it had to essentially guess how viewers wanted to interact with its shows on mobile devices.

Four years later, Big Data has provided a clearer picture and factors heavily into the redesign of ABC’s WATCH app, relaunching today — the first significant update since the iPad was first introduced in 2010.

“It’s really an example of how we looked at analytics to make our decisions,” Albert Cheng, executive VP and chief product officer, digital media for the Disney/ABC Television Group told Variety.

Among the new features offered is the integration of a viewer’s Facebook and Twitter page into the app so they can socialize with friends as they’re watching a show.

A “FastShare” function enables video clips of notable scenes or moments — even full episodes — to be shared.

More behind-the-scenes access to live events also will be offered through a “Multi-Cam” option, which was first used during broadcasts of the Oscars, but is now also available for “Dancing with the Stars.”

“Streaming of live events is more and more part of what people are doing,” Cheng said. “This is a way for us to grow the category that incorporates more of what we do. We see it as a growing category of interest. We’re looking at doing it with any live show that we do.”

That could eventually expand to scripted series, as well.

“This is just a platform,” Cheng said. “Everyone is thinking creatively of what we do in a multi-camera environment.”

The features will get a big push this week with Sunday’s premiere of “Once Upon a Time,” which incorporates the characters of “Frozen.” The episode is available now for viewers on the WATCH ABC, WATCH Disney Channel and WATCH ABC Family app with proof of a pay TV subscription.

Disney XD also has moved up the debut of “Star Wars Rebels” by three days and will make it available Friday through the Disney XD app.

“After experimentation and observation of second screen behavior, we believe that many ABC fans watching television are multi-tasking on social platforms through their personal devices, whether it be a smartphone, tablet or laptop,” said Cheng, who spoke of Big Data’s influence over ABC’s new app during a keynote conversation Wednesday at Variety’s Digital Marketing & Analytics Summit at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

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Before launching what is now the WATCH app, which offers streams of ABC’s shows for free with ads, the network had experimented with interactive programming, offering viewers an array of interactive games and polls while watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example.

“It wasn’t hugely popular,” Cheng said. “We weren’t solving an inherent need in what viewers wanted. It was cool for the super fan but not something we could scale.” Instead, “we took the time to reinvest how we look at the screen and the network,” he said.

What ABC found from Big Data was that there also was the assumption that when viewers are turning to the second screen while watching a show, they’re interacting with content related to the show.

“But the reality is that if you dig deep into the behavior, only a small percentage of people are interacting with anything related to the show,” Cheng said. “They’re tweeting or on Facebook or checking email. We were tackling it the wrong way.”

As a result, ABC chose to “reflect what people are doing” with its new WATCH app and add more social and multitasking features that synched with its own programming.

ABC wanted the social features to be integrated into a single screen so that viewers didn’t have to close the streaming app. “We wanted it to be seamless experience,” Cheng said. “We wanted to create a natural environment that presents an opportunity to inject content into social platforms.”

That enables ABC to control how its shows appear on social media platforms, but also makes it easier for viewers to access the sequences they want to share. In the past, viewers had to record the show themselves and figure out how to copy just the scene they wanted, or they turned to YouTube where the clip may not have been the best quality.

“Sharing their favorite scenes is something people already do on YouTube,” Cheng said. “There are avid fans who take the time to edit and post and share them. But we wanted to make it easier for anyone to share their favorite clips without having to hunt for the URL or find a really weird or challenging way to get the video onto their social platforms.”

In addition to keep viewers engaged with its shows, ABC also wanted to come up with ways to better satisfy its advertisers.

Clips shared using “FastShare,” for example will include targeted advertiser messages, while brands can be positioned related to a fan’s personal preferences through “Social Lens.”

The WATCH app already had integrated advertising, but individual features will now also be sponsored. Mercedes-Benz is the presenting sponsor of “FastShare” and the “Social Lens” for “Scandal,” while retailer Target is the sponsor of “FastShare” and “Social Lens” for “The Middle,” “The Goldbergs,” “Modern Family,” “black-ish” and “Nashville.”

The overall look also has been updated with bold graphics and video making features easier to understand and access.

Text has been shortened or eliminated, Cheng said, after ABC discovered that users tend to ignore lengthy amounts of copy.

“That’s a nice way to say people don’t like to read,” he said. “The more we explained to people how to do something the more people didn’t click on it. You can explain things as extensively as you want, but people don’t want to spend time reading.”

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