Showdown on the second screen

Social media long ago replaced the water cooler as the hub for discussing last night’s TV fare, but since the rise of smartphones and, more recently tablets, the discussion doesn’t need to wait for live TV to become last night’s episode. Instead, viewers increasingly use second-screen devices to chat about what they’re watching as they’re watching it.

Most of that chatter still occurs on the same social networks we use for everything else, like Twitter and Facebook. But a growing percentage now happens via specialized social TV apps, like GetGlue, Shazam and ConnecTV, which combine chat with supplemental material, program guides and other content, and which can sync their content with the particular show being watched using audio recognition technology. According to GetGlue, in fact, four of top 10 scripted shows right now have more activity on GetGlue than on Twitter (Twitter still dominates for live programming and reality shows).

The TV business is about keeping people engaged with what’s happening on-screen long enough and fully enough to get them to view the ads that come along with the programming. Advertisers demand it, and programmers are judged by it.  So there was never much chance that a second screen used to engage the TV audience without any direct involvement by the original programmer would not become contested ground within the industry, particularly as more marketers plant their flags on the second screen.

With the start of the fall TV season, some networks have begun to stake a claim. In September, UK-based companion app platform Zeebox made its debut in the U.S. with an investment from Comcast and its media company NBC Universal. As part of the deal, the NBC network along with Comcast’s cable networks will create exclusive supplemental material for their shows for the Zeebox platform, and provide on-air promotional support for the app. HBO and Cinemax also signed on as strategic partners for the launch and will create a set of “official” second-screen material for their original series.

Since announcing its partnership with Comcast and NBC, Zeebox has since added Viacom as a strategic partner, bringing MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon — all of which have significant online followings — into the Zeebox fold. Zeebox is also rolling out its OpenBox API, which the company says allows content owners to “enhance their shows and channels on the Zeebox app in a matter of hours, distributing exclusive content to consumers, connecting directly with fans through live interactions and social engagement, and monetizing the second screen alongside TV commercials through synchronized, targeted, relevant advertising and affiliate links.”

Zeebox is the brain child of former EMI executive Ernesto Schmitt and former BBC iPlayer CTO Anthony Rose — programming and broadcast guys with a feel and affinity for the needs and fears of programmers and broadcasters. The investment in Zeebox by Comcast and the strategic partnerships with HBO and Viacom are a clear sign the networks are looking for simpatico second-screen partners to help them take ownership of the second-screen experience around their shows.

This week another network, Israeli broadcaster Keshet Broadcasting, got into the second-screen platform game. Digital media company Screenz, a joint venture between Keshet and international advertising company The Box, announced a new joint venture with U.S.-based talent agency ICM Partners to create “interactive entertainment experiences,” tied to traditional TV programming.

The networks can’t stop people from chatting about their shows on Twitter and other social media platforms. And with evidence suggesting such chatter may actually drive viewership of live TV they probably wouldn’t want to even if they could. But any platform that looks like it could become an opportunity for marketers to reach the TV audience over the top of the networks that whose shows attract that audience is ground worth fighting for.