View Along the TV App Landscape
A company-by-company look at the app strategies of top channels, operators and TV program producers
By George Winslow -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/8/2011 9:00:00 AMThe New TV App Economy: The Buzz Meets the Bottom Line
To get a detailed look at the TV app landscape, B&C recently spoke to 25 executives who work in a broad cross section of the media industry. Here is a look at their strategies, plans for expanding their app offerings, business models, the challenges they face and some of the best practices they've uncovered in the early days of making apps an integral part of their current and future business.
The Disney/ABC Television Group has been experimenting with a wide variety of apps. These range from ad supported offerings like the ABC Player app, which accesses full episodes of network programming, as well as the Oscar Backstage Pass (free and premium components) and the Grey's Anatomy App, which is ad-supported and designed to be used along with viewing of the drama.
By late July, the ABC Player iPad app had been downloaded nearly 2.5 million times with viewers using it to start over 37 million episodes.
On the owned and operated station side of the business, the company has also created an app for its Live Well Network that is being broadcast on their digital spectrum. This free ad supported app allows users to access both live and on-demand programming.
ABC has long been interested in adding interactive elements, going back to 2000 when the network experimented by letting viewers play along with Who Wants to be a Millionaire on their PCs and laptops. The company is currently exploring ways to use synch or co-viewing apps to adding more interactive elements to their programming.
"Research shows that among people with iPads, about 70% have them in [hand] when they are in front of the TV, and we're exploring how we could use that to develop an interactive platform," notes Albert Cheng, executive vice president, digital media, Disney/ABC Television Group.
Still, Cheng stresses that a number of business issues need to be resolved. ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Oscar Backstage Pass apps were successful because they included a great deal of original content.
But creating that kind of experience would be expensive if the network tried to do it for every episode of its entire primetime line-up. "We are very glad we did it but the question everyone has to ask now is 'how do you actually build a profitable business around it?'" he says.
Another key component to their app strategy has been building up in-house expertise in digital video distribution, Cheng explains.
"We have people who know video inside and out and as a result, we can move quickly and respond to the marketplace" much faster than if they had outsourced development, Cheng says.
While A+E Networks has produced paid games and apps for history buffs, it has also focusing on free apps that "support our linear services," notes Dan Surratt, executive VP of Digital Media at A+E Networks. "You will see additional [free] video apps with short-form content that are designed to support each of our linear brands and push people back to the linear services to watch full episodes."
One interesting brand extension is the Civil War Today app, a paid product that provides interested users a daily look at what happened 150 years earlier during the bloody U.S. conflict.
This app also illustrates the importance of developing products that take full symbiotic advantage of each device's capabilities by offering consumers an additive experience on each, according to Evan Silverman, senior VP of Digital Media at the company.
"I think media companies do themselves a disservice when they simply take content from the existing online platform and put it on mobile," he notes. "The best mobile experiences provide a different experience than online."
America's Funniest Home Videos
Some producers have blanched at the cost of developing apps for their shows. The producers of America's Funniest Home Videos (AFHV), however, saw it as both an important investment in the show's future, and an opportunity to strengthen the TV series by making it easier for viewers to send in videos.
"The idea of social media really started with our show in 1989," argues Vin Di Bona, creator and exec producer of the show and chairman of FishBowl Worldwide Media. "We have always felt it was very important to tap into whatever people are doing socially with their video cameras and communicate with each other. So we've gone from having them send in videos by snail mail to having people upload video and now letting them do that with an app."
"The app is truly organic to the show because the consumer can not only view videos from the show but they can shoot and upload videos to become part of the show," adds Bruce Gersh, president and CEO of FishBowl.
As viewers consume more video on more devices, CBS has approached its app development as part of a wider strategy of finding the best way to window its content through various digital media, notes Zander Lurie, senior VP of strategic development at CBS.
As part of that strategy, Lurie adds that "we are experimenting with some episodic content on tablet and you will see us do more in years to come," in a way that protects the network's "existing ecosystem" and at the same time "provides a driver of new revenue."
These apps will include both free and paid or subscription offerings. CBS Interactive went the paid route for its 60 Minutes app, which is the No. 4 paid news app in the App Store and its Star Trek Padd app, which became the top paid entertainment app in 11 countries within a week after its launch.
It also broke new ground with its Big Brother app-the first time a network reality show offered a live feed. The free ad-supported version gave full episodes to Android users while the paid subscription version presented live streaming from inside the Big Brother house.
CBS also sees promise in synch apps, which are designed to enhance live viewing. "We are trying to figure out what would be the corollary of CBS Fantasy Football League for our primetime shows," Lurie says. "What would that second screen experience look like for those shows?"
After initially going the paid route, CNN switched last year to free apps and crossed the 10-million app download mark in July.
The news network also passed a major milestone in July with the launch of its first TV Everywhere app that made live streams of CNN and HLN available to multichannel providers who had inked TV Everywhere deals with Turner. At launch, the app was available in some 50 million homes, a number that will grow to 70 million in upcoming months.
"It adds a lot of value for someone who is paying a cable bill every month to be able to access CNN on additional devices," argues K.C. Estenson, general manager of CNN Digital, who notes that it was the first time a U.S. news network had allowed users to access a live stream via an app. "We think it is a watershed moment in the cable industry."
While CNN and other Turner networks are increasingly moving toward TV Everywhere apps, the news net continues to offer free apps with short-form content to other users while also expanding the number of devices it serves.
CNN has invested heavily in building an in-house mobile staff, but high development costs for a plethora of incompatible devices and lack of mobile ad revenues are making it difficult for some companies to justify the costs.
"A lot of traditional media organizations are reluctant to do what we've done because you are talking about a lot of money to hire five or ten people just to do mobile at a time when advertising in the mobile space hasn't caught up with usage," Estenson says. "Frankly, at CNN, I don't think we've had a choice. People expect us to be there on mobile [and other platforms] with breaking news. It is part of our brand promise to be everywhere."
The apps, which incorporate CNN's iReport citizen journalism effort, also are playing an increasingly important role in newsgathering.
Launched in 2006, the iReport effort recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and now has over 900,000 contributors worldwide. "When the storms rolled through the U.S. this summer, having people on the ground that could use our app to upload pictures and video was just incredibly powerful," Estenson notes.
One notable example of how apps can increase viewer engagement with a show can be found with the network's Tosh.0 app.
"The interesting thing for us is that the usage has been very strong when the show isn't on," notes Erik Flannigan, executive vice president, digital media, MTV Networks Entertainment Group. "Earlier this year, during a dark period [when there were no new episodes], we had about 2 million people interacting with the app, which is the most we've ever had. It is almost unheard of and it has caused us to think much more about the need to create content for these shows to engage people both between episodes and between seasons."
Flannigan credits Daniel Tosh for much of the app's popularity because the comedian is so active on multimedia platforms. "He is often on Twitter asking the audience to create something that may end up on the show," he notes.
While they've been successful with paid apps, much of their focus has been on free apps, with sponsorship opportunities generally bundled with other digital properties. "There is tremendous interest from advertisers to be associated with mobile devices and apps and to sponsor something like the Daily Show app," Flannigan says.
ESPN's app strategy spans a wide range of approaches, from free to paid and more recently the launch of its TV Everywhere App, Watch ESPN, which gives subscribers of participating multichannel operators access to four live feeds from ESPN's channels.
"Watch ESPN allows video subs to watch the channels wherever they are, on whatever device they want, and creates new level of portability," says John Kosner, senior VP and general manager, ESPN Digital and Print Media.
ESPN was an early mobile player that now has an in-house staff of around 40 people. Kosner notes that "one of the key things we've found is that this is a world where less is more. Having fewer but really self-explanatory apps that offer a terrific experience is better than trying to turn everything into an app. So you'll see us focus more on experiences like Watch ESPN that deliver the simple, elegant, fast experience fans want."
MTV and VH1
Much of the development focus at MTV and VH1 had been on apps that support the core TV properties or brand extensions of their shows, notes Kristin Frank, general manager of MTV and VH1 Digital.
The channels have also launched a VH1 Co-Star app and the MTV WatchWith app that are designed "to be a companion to linear viewing," Frank explains.
While those synch or co-viewing apps are free, the two channels have used a variety of business models for their app launches, with an ad-supported free MTV News app that has been downloaded over 2 million times, and some paid apps, such as MTV's Jersey Shore: Spread Snooki app.
A major focus has been quality over quantity and leveraging the brands to market the apps, Frank adds. "We're very fortunate to have the brands and the franchises we have, which give us a built-in marketing engine for brand extensions."
NBC has focused on free apps, including the NBC Live app for iPad, which offers a wide array of short videos and information tied to their programming, though viewers must still go to NBC.com to see full episodes.
So far, demand from advertisers has been strong, with Cars.com signing up as a charter sponsor for the launch of NBC Live and Royal Caribbean subsequently sponsoring the app, notes Vivi Zigler, president, NBCUniversal Digital Entertainment. Increasingly, NBC is also looking to bundle these ad deals across their mobile inventory and digital properties.
Notably, NBC has also experimented with providing additional content and features on NBC Live for such shows as The Office, The Voice, America's Got Talent and Love Bites.
This season, episodes of The Voice marked the first time that users were able to vote on a show via the app. "For the first time the combined votes from online and the app beat the votes from the 800 number," Zigler says.
Such efforts are, however, extremely labor intensive. "You can't do a cookie cutter-style app," she says. "The content has to be customized for every single episode of every show. We've had live moderation with the shows and we deal with two time zones, so it is a fair amount of work."
Experimentation has been extremely important in the network's efforts, Zigler stresses. "We can't put millions of dollars into developing apps just for the fun of it," she says. "But if you only did things that made millions of dollars, you would never do anything. Being fearful of trying things is death. You have to get into the pool to see what works in order to make things work better."
Notable recent app launches for NBC News include The Royal Wedding by NBC News App for iPad, iPhone and Android that surpassed 200,000 downloads and was listed on iTunes' Top Ten list for free iPad Apps; and the NBC Nightly News iPad App, which had 546,000 downloads between launch on May 26, 2011 and July 21.
Looking forward, Vivian Schiller, NBC News' recently hired chief digital officer, notes that they'll be focusing on both apps and the mobile Web, reflecting the growing attention digital operations are putting on mobile Web browsers.
"The engagement you can get with an app is through the roof but you still need to bring new audiences, and for the discovery process the mobile Web is essential," she notes.
Nickelodeon has released over 40 games, and has had over 25 million downloads of its apps, reports Steve Youngwood, executive VP and general manager, digital, Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group at MTVN.
A recent Nickelodeon Kids & Mobile study found that the average U.S. child age six to 11 has an average of 24 apps on a device and that they used about six of these apps at least once a week.
That research also found that iPads were particularly important devices, with kids having 32 apps on the family iPad.
To capitalize on that interest, much of Nickelodeon's app focus has been on paid games, but Youngwood notes they are putting increased emphasis on apps tied to programming and that many of their games are based on popular animated properties, such as SpongeBob SquarePants.
Second screen or co-viewing apps that add interactive elements and additional content to the viewing experience are also an increasingly important part of the network's app strategy. "We're looking closely at what the viewer really wants to do with an app while they are watching TV," Youngwood says.
Turner has had considerable success with its paid gaming apps from Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, but the company is increasingly focusing on TV Everywhere apps that will provide users with full episodes as part of their cable, satellite or multichannel subscription, notes Jeremy Legg, VP of business development at Turner Broadcasting System.
Turner's first TV Everywhere app was for CNN and HLN but Legg expects they will be offering TV Everywhere apps for their entertainment brands soon and that the number of homes will hit 70 million in the next several months.
The upcoming apps for the entertainment channels will offer on-demand long-form content but not live 24-hour streams.
"We don't want to offer simulcast services just to grab a headline," Legg says. "It makes a lot of sense for news and sports but we are not so sure about entertainment. We are going to see how the CNN simulcast is adopted and we'll make decisions on how to expand that."
The combined C3 ratings now being offered by Nielsen were a major factor in Turner's decision to embrace TV Everywhere apps and multiplatform delivery, Legg notes. Measurement for mobile remains a problem but "the leakage in terms of the mobile platform as it related to C3 is probably relatively low right now," he adds.
The Weather Channel
TWC was one of the first networks to embrace apps, launching its first in 2001. The network also has one of the most successful app operations with more than 53 million downloads of their ad supported apps.
With about 35 million unique visitors to its mobile offerings each month, they've achieved enough scale to use the mobile platform as a way of attracting both advertisers and viewers, notes Cameron Clayton, executive vice president of digital product, The Weather Channel Companies.
"We want to figure out how to get that audience to tune into The Weather Channel at say 8 p.m. on Wednesday," Clayton says. "If we can just get 10% of that 35 million to do that, it would be the golden bullet."
One method may be companion or synch apps, which can significantly boost viewer engagement and ratings, Clayton believes. An app for their show From the Edge with Peter Lik got 50,000 downloads in the first week of the series and ultimately helped boost ratings by 14%, Clayton notes.
TWC was also an early player in mobile Web, launching its first Website in 1999, and the company, which has about 50 people working in the mobile area, remains bullish on mobile Web opportunities.
"The thing we always forget with the sexiness of apps is the mobile Web, but our mobile Websites have 29.5 million uniques a month and it is an important driver," Clayton notes. "If I was giving advice on anyone getting started, I say don't start with an iPhone app because it is sexy. Start with building a mobile Website, which can be accessed by almost all handsets and has potentially a huge audience."
Unfortunate that PBS was not included here. The work they are doing to serve millions of views each month through their iPad experience is astounding. They are setting standards for best practices in mobile video. Considering the scrutiny public broadcasting faces politically and commercially, it's impressive to watch their successful strategy overcome the challenges.
Nic DiPalma - 8/9/2011 8:07:09 PM EDT
No related content found.
No Top Articles
Digital Rapids provides market-leading software and hardware solutions, technology and expertise for transforming live and on-demand video to reach wider audiences on the latest viewing platforms more efficiently, more effectively and more profitably. Empowering applications from..more