Something big is cooking in portable TV in the US. It's possibly the equivalent of a Hulu (in that it is owned by content owners), but from a group of broadcasters who have already identified themselves as being behind the ATSC M/H Mobile DTV services: but this time the subject is both social TV and over the top (OTT) content.
It looks as if this cluster of players got together and realised that there was strength in numbers, whether ATSC M/H takes off or not, and went around looking for projects to continue the collaboration.
The broadcast groups include Barrington Broadcasting, Belo Corp, Cox Media, EW Scripps, Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst TV, Media General, Meredith Corp, Post-Newsweek Stations and Raycom Media. When you combined all of these you get 201 TV stations which are mostly affiliates of ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CW and Warner Brothers, covering 45 of the US's top 50 markets for TV. Nine of these had already put their names down to be part of Pearl, a partnership behind the ATSC M/H-based Mobile DTV in the US.
The vehicle they have chosen to collaborate around is from ConnecTV, described as a social TV system designed entirely for watching TV, or at least for watching, voting, talking about and looking up stuff about TV. Think of it as a version of iMDB but about current TV programmes, put together with Facebook or Google+. ConnecTV has on-board executives who have worked at TiVo, MobiTV, Gemstar-TV Guide and TVN Entertainment, and until now has been operating for two years in stealth mode.
Social TV...for why?
One of the questions we have always had about social TV is why on earth anyone would want to engage in a dialog about TV, on a TV. Early IPTV system, to a certain extent later cable inventions, and now connected TV all seem to make that same mistake. Discussion needs to be private but viewing does not always need to be.
Social TV has to be able to cope with two or three things. The first thing is that little Johnny does not want his parents to know what he watches on TV, and when he makes a comment about how is Father is hogging the TV for Monday night football, he doesn't want to be overhead. So privacy is key, which is why it belongs on a tablets, not the TV screen.
Secondly how does a group of friends get to watch the same programming at the same time and deliberately log on to one another? In different parts of the US different shows are on at different times or at least on different channels. Whatever social network brings them together, also needs to point them in the right direction for their region and set up an open comment channel.
Thirdly, if you've gone to all that trouble of setting that up, then it might just as well be a viewing party over a VoD piece of content too – so that online rights need to be sorted out and a revenue share basis for the content owners for the social network viewing and any advertising that can be played on it.
In other words. it‘s tough to adapt existing social networks to social TV, and despite the fact that Google is working hard to incorporate this into Google+, the local stations do have an edge in bringing it all together. They also have a lot of weight with the stations they are affiliates to such as ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, as long as there is a potential revenue share for the national networks. In fact it is likely that the prime movers here are in fact the collective national networks, but they want to see what their affiliates can do with it before declaring their interest.
Our first thought when hearing about this move with the Pearl group is that this would be related directly to the ATSC M/H stations that these same organisations (with the exception of Barrington Broadcasting) have already launched. But we are told this is not the case. Their big problem remains (actually their only problem) is getting a major device maker to offer a way of viewing these networks on a tablet. ATSC M/H requires a specialist chip and although it is true that people want live TV on a handset (or tablet), they won't have it if comes with a monthly price tag or needs special unsubsidised devices.
How would it work?
Right now US citizens can buy a stand-alone device which will output the signal as local Wi-Fi video and that way TV can be viewed on all tablets, but it's still not as good as if it came as standard built into all Android and iOS devices – at that point mobile TV in the US would take off in a heartbeat.
We can‘t help thinking that however unrelated this ConnecTV service is to ATSC M/H, it has the potential to become related to it in the future, at the very least as two technologies this group is pushing. Perhaps the major broadcasters use one technology to push the other, for instance not giving permission to access Metadata from their TV programmes for use with ConnecTV, unless the broadcaster in question has already set up Mobile DTV broadcasting.
The broadcasters say their stations cover 76 million US households (out of roughly 111 million) and now have a long-term commercial partnership with ConnecTV, which lets viewers interact with other fans watching the same TV program and provides a broad range of related content and promotional opportunities which are synchronized with programmes being viewed.
There is obviously some work to integrate and synchronise the programming within ConnecTV, but then they plan to advertise it on air and online. As we suggested the advertising inventory inside ConnecTV will be synchronized and also used to promote key programs. Some of these broadcasters have made an undisclosed investment in ConnecTV.
In effect this is US broadcasters finding a way to create their own online service and social network, so they get internet revenues. Invariably the content services they have alluded to will be VoD services served through an application or portal, (the same content as is broadcast in ATSC M/H), we suspect.
"Our mission is for ConnecTV to be the social network that empowers entertainment, news and sports fans to share the greatest moments in television," said ConnecTV Co-Founder Ian Aaron. "The team at ConnecTV is thrilled to work with the leaders in local news and television across America as we bring to market an innovative and engaging second-screen experience for all TV viewers that works seamlessly across all programming genres and on all platforms. With over five billion TV viewers and the explosion of tablets and smart phones globally, we are truly at the beginning of a new way to watch TV."
ConnecTV is available currently in an "invitation only" sneak preview and will be launching to the public in early 2012. It was founded by Ian Aaron, former President of Gemstar-TV Guide and Alan Moskowitz, former senior engineer at MobiTV, with other team members from the engineering team at TiVo.
ConnecTV doesn‘t only have to be used with local entertainment and can equally be used with cable programming. It is available as a free application for tablets and for Macs and PCs. It‘s a bit unclear just how ConnecTV automatically identifies the show you are watching, but that‘s what the company boasts.
ConnecTV automatically logs in television viewers while they watch programmes and synchronises relevant content onto its screen, including latest news, celebrity information, trivia, polls and play-by-play sports stats. ConnecTV subscribers can see which TV shows their friends are watching, invite them to a "viewing party" and start a real-time conversation and they can also connect to share viewing moments using Facebook, Twitter and email and all this can work with up to 250 channels.