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TV Apps: Culture Clash Evident In Multiscreen Apps Development Efforts

by David Mercer | Oct 25, 2013

This year’s Apps World event was the last to take place at London’s Earls Court. No tears from me even though the decision to move across London to Excel next year means an even longer journey. At least Excel should be able to cope with the registration and entry process, which according to a colleague was chaotic. Once inside I focused on the TV Apps track, and by the end of day one got the distinct impression this corner of the event was feeling distinctly out of sync with the rest of the exhibition.

As I noted at last year’s event, the involvement of the creative community in TV app development is critical to its progress so it’s good to hear this is happening deep in the bowels of major media corporations, even if we haven’t seen much evidence of it just yet in terms of true multiscreen content. Viacom’s Ralf Jacob commented that such “transmedia” storytelling is a big challenge, and while Viacom feels it is “somewhere in the process” of developing such ideas the company needs “very sophisticated technical solutions” to support its longer term objectives. Sounds like a call to arms for TV tech vendors…

An intermediate step on the path towards transmedia is the game show app, and Endemol’s Branco Scherer gave us an update on the producer’s activites with the “Million Pound Drop” show. Addressing the question of business models, he noted that Endemol had developed at least half a dozen different approaches around the world.

They range from broadcaster commissioning through various flavours of sponsorship and promotion to D2C – direct payment by end users. One of the most successful models according to Endemol is the direct sales/licensing approach taken by TV2 and Danske Spil (DS) in Denmark. In this case DS – the Danish lottery – licensed the Money Drop brand and offered its own products and scratch cards. This would seem an obvious approach in a partnership between a games show and a lottery. Overall across the entire Money Drop market Endemol quoted conversion rates (TV viewers who played a game) of between 0.8% and 12.3%. Scherer emphasised that a key element in every business model was promotion, using as many channels (social media, broadcast etc.) as possible.

Sky’s Gareth Capon noted that producers were now giving more thought earlier on in the production process to developing interactive and multiscreen apps, but that the natural TV production process is still a lengthy one and as such is often out of sync with the speed at which apps developers typically like to work.

A service provider perspective was given by AT&T’s GW Shaw, who confirmed what we have been saying for a long time, that smart TV apps are not like the world of mobile apps but are focused on full length linear video. I believe that’s what we used to call “television”. He used “Country Deep”, a country music video service offering new and regularly refreshed content with spotlights on key artists, as an example of where AT&T has had success in TV apps. Without giving any user data Greg noted that once people started using the app/service they would keep coming back. Again this appears to reflect the findings of our own Digital Home Observatory research that smart TV owners may struggle to discover apps in the first place but can become hooked once they do.

AT&T is now opening up its U-verse TV platform by making APIs available to third parties, an early example being Twonky’s Beam Browser. But Greg Shaw is not optimistic that the mobile apps model based on storefronts and user-driven downloads can be replicated in smart TV. He rightly highlighted the issue of the TV input as one of the strategic challenges facing any player targeting the big screen. It’s something that is not mentioned enough in my view, and refers to the fact that TV viewers are generally reluctant to switch HDMI (or other) inputs in order to move from, say, a set-top box to the TV’s own smart TV portal.

The standards debate was covered tangentially rather than in depth, the general conclusion being that HTML5 is becoming a de facto standard, is a strong focus of operators like AT&T as well as the CE industry, and is getting close to resolving many issues, but is not yet the whole answer. The BBC’s Roux Joubert noted that there are still no standards relating to TV UI, and also that there is no toolkit which supports app development for all TVs. The only way the BBC’s iPlayer can support multiple TVs is because it works on top of an abstraction layer designed by the BBC itself.

In terms of new developments the BBC is optimistic about DIAL, a protocol developed by Netflix and Youtube which is intended to bridge the gap between small screen and big screen apps and offer an open-source alternative to Apple’s AirPlay. We can expect DIAL to be incorporated into future iPlayer upgrades.

As noted by the DTG’s George Robertson, the standards development challenges in smart TV reflect the clash of cultures between IT/web and TV/CE worlds. I would also add that the regional fragmentation which lies at the heart of TV’s business model also inhibits progress towards global standards.

If we needed any reminding, it was clear from the TV Apps conference that the traditional TV world remains committed to its own way of doing things, absorbing the opportunities offered by apps and multiscreen in a controlled way and according to its own schedule. The clash between two cultures was never more evident and lies at the heart of the disruption which will drive television’s transformation over the coming years.

David Mercer

See also: Companion TV Apps: Viewers Excited, Then Bored, By Red Bee Media and Civolution's Walking Dead App 

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