How TV networks embrace phone use during viewing

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

by Esther Shein

How often have you watched a TV show and wanted to look something up about an actor or find out more about a scene while you watch?

So has Zane Vella. As the former software developer sees it, timeline-based metadata is the “missing ingredient” from the consumer viewing experience.

Vella came up with the idea of building a cloud-based platform that would let TV networks and other content providers power interactivity through apps to further engage consumers while they watch shows, movies and commercials.

His company, Watchwith, is capturing the burgeoning second screen trend, which involves using a smartphone or other device to enhance a viewing experience. The company launched in 2012 with a large database of interactive content around movies that Vella and his team began building six years earlier. Today, that database contains more than 10,000 movies and TV shows that are offered on a subscription basis.

Now, the focus has shifted to a software-as-a-service model, says Vella, where TV networks such as Bravo, Fox, and USA Networks are using Watchwith to create apps for synchronized content — polls, quizzes, and trivia.

“We’re at a very exciting time where people are figuring out this bridge between television and the Web,’’ said Vella. “It’s very exciting to combine the broad reach of television and how it connects with the deep, interactive, immediate part of the Web. That’s what Watchwith is about.”

Vella said he knew this type of granular information was going to be important “because, as an interactive producer and developer, I needed it.”

“It’s classical American entrepreneurialism at it’s best — find a hole and fill it,” he said. That gap was a need to supply metadata, or contextual information about what’s happening at a particular moment in time during a show.

One of the most common examples is watching a TV show such as “Friends” and “wanting to buy Jennifer Aniston’s sweater,” he said. “When someone is interested in a product or what an actor is wearing, they often want to dig in deep straight from their phone, tablet or computer.”

The missing ingredient was the information about what’s on the screen. “You need to find a way to make a call to action or indicate that to the viewer,’’ Vella said. “You could wait until the end of show … but people care less about it then — they care most about it at that moment in time.”

“Millennials, in particular, are multitaskers who want that instant gratification, whether they just seek information or want to know where to buy the sweater,” he said.

One of the more interesting uses of Watchwith and the second screen has been with Syfy Network, which has a show called Face Off, a competitive elimination series featuring special effects makeup artists who are tasked with creating different-themed characters. The show is using Watchwith’s Showrunner tool to make timelines of interactive events related the episodes and develop interactive content for the second screen.

American Idol also just started using Watchwith to power its second screen and experiences. “We know exactly what actors are on screen at any time, what music is playing,” he said. “We started the business that way, and now we’re providing the tool and platform for others to use.’’

Prior to Watchwith, if a show wanted to make an interactive shopping feature available, someone would have to watch the entire show and painstakingly mark up the timeframe of the scene the sweater appeared in. Then they would have to log the time-based information or tags, often manually into a spreadsheet.

Then Vella realized they could “build great tools to help people to do that tagging, so you can tag where certain products are or where you want to put a poll, synchronized to when it appears.”

Watchwith’s motto, said Vella, is about “turning curiosity and desire into action.”

“What we’re really trying to do in the big picture is evolve the television or movie experience and help turn the viewers’ curiosity and desire into action,” he said.

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