Cable providers make TV a social media affair

Jul 7 2011 - 8:59am

CHICAGO -- The cable television industry wants TV viewing to go beyond the ability to watch the tube anywhere; it hopes to make the experience more interactive and personalized.

Once an industry buzz phrase, the "TV everywhere" concept has been widely adopted by cable operators, allowing subscribers to watch video on multiple devices such as smartphones and tablets. Now, the industry is challenged by the next step: growing by adding social networking features and other content that takes cues from the Web experience, while keeping consumers hooked on cable TV.

"The implications of (TV everywhere) hit the entire supply chain," Rob Malnati, director of business development at Motorola Mobility, said in Chicago last month at the cable TV industry's annual three-day expo, called The Cable Show. "The companion device is changing the way we watch TV."

The proliferation of mobile devices, fast broadband and online content providers such as Hulu and Netflix has transformed television into a multiscreen activity.

According to a survey released in May by The Nielsen Co., 70 percent of tablet owners and 68 percent of smartphone owners report using their gadgets while watching TV, and TV viewing represented 30 percent of tablet owners' time with their device and 20 percent of smartphone owners' time. Cable industry executives expect usage to continue rising.

That presents an opportunity for both cable operators and programmers to incorporate that second device into the broader activity of watching TV. HBO, for example, created a deep pool of content related to its "Game of Thrones" series that can be accessed through its HBO Go application for the iPhone, iPad and Android smartphones. The app showcased supplementary video commentary, character family trees and details about weapons that viewers could peruse while watching an episode.

Viacom Inc., which owns MTV and BET, has tackled the multiscreen challenge by closely linking social media feeds with its programs. In March, BET released an iPhone and iPad app for viewers of "106 & Park," the network's weekday music countdown and pop culture show. The app is designed to be used during the program, as users who are logged in will see their location appear on a live map on the show's set. They also have the chance to have their Twitter posts read on the air and can vote for their favorite performers and music videos.

"Consumers are changing behavior," Philippe Dauman, president and chief executive of Viacom, said at the Cable Show. "You need to have interactivity as part of the experience."

However, not all members of the industry agree on how to measure and monetize the "TV everywhere" trend. Content providers want to make sure they are compensated for putting channels on emerging platforms, while cable operators want to make programming available on multiple screens while appeasing consumers who balk at paying more than once for the same content.

In June, Viacom sued Cablevision Systems Corp., saying that the cable operator violated its contract by making Viacom content available through the Cablevision iPad app. Viacom had sued Time Warner Cable over a similar matter, although the two companies are attempting to negotiate a deal.

Officials say they also would like to see better methods of tracking viewership on platforms such as smartphones and tablets because the industry relies on these numbers to set advertising rates.

"Measurement isn't keeping up," Coleman Breland, chief operating officer of Turner Network Sales, said at the Cable Show. "But when it does, a screen is just a screen."

New technology and viewing habits are also transforming the capabilities of the set-top box and programming guide. While industry executives don't see the box disappearing entirely, they see it taking on different functions.

John Burke, senior vice president and general manager of converged experiences at Motorola Mobility, told the Chicago Tribune that set-top boxes are becoming "gateways in the home that serve content as streams to different devices." This content could include not just live and recorded TV programming, but personal photos and videos.

The vast amount of personal media that can be stored in a central location means consumers need tools to sort through that content.

"The role that navigation plays today is much different than channel-up or channel-down," Robert Marcus, president and chief operating officer of Time Warner Cable, said at the convention.

Industry officials talk of bringing a Web-like feel to the traditional programming guide, making it more user-friendly and interactive. Comcast Corp. is testing a platform in Georgia that uses cloud computing to provide personalized content. In a demonstration that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts gave at the Cable Show, a search for "Cubs" turned up not just a list of Chicago Cubs games across channels, but an episode of "Undercover Boss" featuring the team.

Comcast's next-generation guide will store and generate recommendations based on subscribers' favorite TV series, personalities and sports teams. Applications, which are common on smartphones and tablets, are also a part of Comcast's new platform. Users can browse their Facebook news feed and watch TV simultaneously. A related feature pulls in recommendations from Facebook friends based on content that they "like" around the Web, including external sites such as Hulu and Netflix.

"The guide becomes what your friends tell you to watch, not what a linear, alphabetical guide tells you to watch," Roberts said.

One of the biggest obstacles to tailoring the tube-watching experience is that the TV set, unlike a smartphone, is meant for group viewing. This means a set-top box might not necessarily know which member of the household is asking for a movie recommendation, for example.

"Devices are different in their level of intimacy," Michael Papish, product development director at digital entertainment technology firm Rovi Corp., said at the Cable Show. He stressed the importance of building systems that can accommodate different assumptions about users without making the experience cumbersome.

"We don't think consumers are going to log into their TVs," Papish said.

If the cable industry succeeds in making the TV set as interactive and personal as a smartphone or tablet, that living-room mainstay could undergo a significant shift in identity.

"There's no such thing as a TV," Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt said at the convention. "It's a video display device."

(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune.

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