Founded in 2011, UK-based startup Zeebox created a second screen app that generated some big votes of confidence by attracting investors, including BSkyB, Comcast, NBC Universal, Viacom and HBO.
It recently launched a new feature, “TV Rooms,” which allows broadcasters, producers and fans to create targeted second screen destinations based around their favorite actors or shows.
On Friday, Zeebox introduced “spoiler-free tweets,” a content recognition feature that delays access to “spoilers” from social media, whether you are watching a program on the West Coast or from a DVR.
The company’s visionary co-founder and chief technology officer is Anthony Rose, the former BBC exec who is widely credited with the design and success of the BBC iPlayer.
In this interview with The Hollywood Reporter’s Behind the Screen blog, he shares his vision of the future of television and social media. He also describes the latest features and direction of Zeebox.
The Hollywood Reporter: Let’s start with the business model. How do you make money from second screen?
Anthony Rose: In the longer term, the content will be a mixture of the video plus all the ancillary things. The product placement, sponsorship, purchase opportunities will be more integrated into the show.
In the short term, there are a range of immediate revenue options for a second screen company as well as a broadcaster. The first one is TV advertising, which today is a $70 billion a year business. As technology provides new opportunities, all of the parties will explore that in different ways. Some of it will be very disruptive and some will be quite complementary.
Will it be second screen companies, or perhaps Twitter and Facebook [offering ads]? When there is a Coke ad on TV, will they be sending a Pepsi ad to the second screen? Will it be Google buying the ad space, or the broadcasters?
Zeebox is looking to partner with broadcasters. [Today] on an NBC or Viacom channel, their sales team can sell a TV ad and a second screen ad. We can provide a synchronized ad in Zeebox that is targeted, and it provides broadcasters a new outlet to the advertising they are running. We are also doing that in the U.K. with Sky, and in Australia with Channel 10 and Foxtel.
THR: Tell us about your new “spoiler-free tweets” feature.
Rose: Zeebox will have the ability to replay even a Twitter conversation, synchronized to what you are watching. For people on the West Coast, today Twitter creates spoilers. Now if you are on the West Coast, it will automatically synchronize the tweets to the first live airing on the East Coast. (This also works with DVRed programs.) I think in a small way, this is quite transformational.
THR: We often talk about second screen features including the social component. Which do you think are most important for a successful experience?
Rose: We think there are five classes of things that consumers are looking for:
[One is] participation TV. We are at the beginning of the journey with second screen; you can connect with other people, shop, … but the programs themselves haven’t changed. The next phase can be new platforms allowing program-makers to create programs in new ways. For me, that is the thing that is really exciting. With participation TV, if you have a vote or poll, it can form part of the show itself. The first of these we did with NBC around Take It All. You could play along, a leader board was created and projected on screen, with the host talking about it in real-time. At the end of it, someone won $10,000. That will be a key thing you’ll be seeing from Zeebox in the coming months.
Program discovery. The program guide with the list of 576 channels is a bit like looking through the telephone directory for an arbitrary number. It’s just a terrible way of finding something. People constantly tell us they are looking for a new, better way to find what they want to watch. It’s all about personalization.
Social: People talk about second screen and social as if they are synonymous, but social is a subset. … Twitter is fantastic, but you have 140 characters. How do you engage in a conversation? Zeebox is addressing this with its TV Rooms.
Information: There’s a clear need for information. Today that information is mined from third-party sources. I think with new platforms, all the metadata that broadcasters are currently filing internally or throwing away will finally have a vehicle [to get to consumers].
Shopping: Consumers keep telling us all they want is to be able to just buy things they see on TV.
THR: When should program producers start to think about second screen, and is that created by the same team that produces the show, or a third party?
Rose: That question takes me back to my iPlayer days when I headed up many program websites. Everyone knew you had to have a website for your show, but that would begin after launch. That is where we see second screen and social media today.
Today the broadcaster has the relationship with the audience, and the show-maker is often unknown to the average [viewer]. Second screen might change that and might allow the program-maker to begin engaging directly with the audience, and the broadcaster becomes the main playout screen.
Is a second app made by the program-makers, the broadcaster, or a third-party second-screen company? I think there will be new opportunities for content creators. … In a sense, the program-maker has been able to do this for a while, but it has been expensive to develop. [Today] you don’t have to spend millions of dollars developing a backend. That is essentially available now on a plate from Zeebox and potentially others.
[Then questions might include] how will program-makers create new content for the new medium, and how will they set up their licensing arrangements with their playout and distribution channels to allow them to engage with their audiences in this way?
THR: Do you consider Twitter to be complementary or competitive to Zeebox?
Rose: Right now, second screen is like California in the 1800s. There’s a vast amount of open space and no one knows quite where the treasure is buried. Right now I think there is plenty of opportunity, and I don’t think we are running into each other. That said, all the incumbents are looking to create new propositions. The way I see it, Twitter is doing one thing, and the interface looks nothing like Zeebox. It doesn’t have a program guide; it doesn’t interface back in to the TV. People will be looking to add new features, but they are different propositions, and I don’t see major collisions, at least in the near term.
THR: As we look to the future of television, do you think improvements to the image (i.e. 4K) are important?
Rose: People are trading immediacy over definition. Of course 4K is as inevitable as HD; it’s just one day your new TV will have more pixels. But I think people will choose the show that’s available when and where they want it over the one that is available in super-duper quality that needs a whole chain of new devices to watch. For a new generation, quality of experience means something that is available when and where you want it.
People looking to sell 4K are the people who want to sell you new devices that you are going to spend big money on. That is part of the consumer electronics business. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, as a consumer, … do I fuss if it’s HD or not quite HD? Not really. I’d rather watch Game of Thrones when I want then wait a long time [to download it] and have a smaller choice.