It’s easy to understand why 2012 is shaping up to be the year of social TV. Consumers are turning to the so-called second screen like never before. A 2011 whitepaper prepared by Yahoo/Nielsen reported that as many as 86 percent of viewers use mobile devices while watching TV. While many think that number might be high, it signals a trend in consumer behavior that cannot be ignored. Broadcasters and marketers are feeling the heat of both risk and reward. Risk if they do nothing and cede the second screen to Twitter and Angry Birds; reward if they find a way to deliver companion experiences, drive engagement—and expand ad inventory.
One result has been investment flowing into social TV apps, in what some—like MIT research scientist Marie-Jose Montpetit—are already comfortable calling a bubble. "2012 is the year that people will think, rightly maybe, that they will make a lot of money out of social television, for the first time ever," she says. "But I would say a lot of people think it is going to be easy. I think people are creating a bubble around it."
Yahoo snatched up audio-synchronization app IntoNow for $20-$30 million last April, just 12 weeks after it launched. Check-in apps GetGlue and Miso, meanwhile, have both closed funding rounds in recent months, while U.K.-based Zeebox recently won backing from BSkyB for its platform, which it plans to bring to the U.S. in the first part of the year. "I think what we’re seeing is a very, very early nascent market of lots of players, and I think we’re going to see, in the next year or so, some consolidation, we’re going to see the deaths of some companies, for that matter, and you’ll probably see some new entrants as well," says Somrat Niyogi, CEO and founder of Miso.
Here are five players already in the market. Each has a different piece of the puzzle. It remains to be seen which—if any—will emerge from 2012 stronger than they started.
The Audio QR Code: Shazam
The Check-In King: GetGlue
GetGlue launched in 2008 as a platform on which you could "check-in"—a la Foursquare—to television shows, books, and movies, but TV quickly became its primary application. "TV is the biggest focus for us right now," says CEO and founder Alex Iskold. "It seems to be the most popular with consumers, due to the nature of TV. It is repetitive, you can check in every week, and it is the primary form of entertainment for many." With an additional $12 million in funding and 2 million users under its belt, GetGlue has become a serious partner for networks like HBO, which ran a True Blood promotion that rewarded super-fans for their check-ins. Some scoff at the check-in and sticker model as too 2009, but there’s no question GetGlue has some momentum.
The User-Generated Platform: Miso
Another check-in play, launched in 2010—think Gowalla to GetGlue’s Foursquare—what makes Miso interesting today is its approach to content. Two big problems of second-screen experiences are a) content and b) noise. Miso is trying to solve both by creating a "WordPress for TV" that allows users—be they fans or content owners—to create second-screen experiences to accompany TV shows. "My vision is there will be a new market of second-screen producers, people that are creating content specifically for the second screen," says Niyogi. "Imagine a history expert that knows more about the 1960s than anybody at [Mad Men], that can say this is accurate, this is not accurate, that product never existed. There are people who will follow history experts across TV, who’ll say I have to watch this show, with this person." Imagine, in other words, if the best Twitter fan in any TV hashtag had better tools. You can test out Miso’s SideShows experience this Sunday, with Super Bowl content, sponsored by Hyundai. Right now, however—unless you have DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—you’ll have to forward manually through your experience, although Miso is currently looking to partner with vendors for synchronization via audio content recognition.
The Audio-Sync Engine: IntoNow
The third biggest problem of second-screen experiences is synchronization. How does your device know what you’re watching—and know right where you are in the show? Check-ins are an option. Direct synchronization with an Internet-enabled set-top box is viable, although carrier fragmentation presents a lot of obstacles. But (almost) all TV has sound. IntoNow is able to detect what you’re watching, live, on 130 channels and has indexed some 266 years of archival content. As founder Adam Cahan explains, sound is to IntoNow as GPS is to Foursquare and other geolocation apps—it’s a passive input that allows IntoNow to determine your context and deliver relevant content accordingly. "Sound as input, we think, is critical," he says. "Sound for us unlocks the fact that we can use it to understand your context and use it to identify what you’re doing." Right now, once you’re synched to a show, IntoNow serves up contextual stories from Yahoo (based on real-time mentions) and relevant Twitter handles, along with native discussion threads. Cahan argues that this sort of ambient content is the right mix for tablets, which tend to be more consumption-focused than community-focused. "We think there’s going to be a lot more of this type of experience, where you—as a user—are giving us very few inputs, in our case it’s one tap and a SoundPrint, where we will continue to surface more and more relevant content or experiences or social aspects, without necessarily requiring you to deeply engage."
The Import: Zeebox
Launched in November by former BBC technology chief Anthony Rose, Zeebox has the field to itself in the U.K., and quickly garnered a substantial investment from BSkyB, the U.K.’s largest subscription television service. Zeebox acts as an electronic program guide, weighted by what your friends—or everyone—is watching, combined with a suite of social and web tools that allow you to engage with others about what you’re watching. According to Rose, users want three things. "They want more information about what they see on TV, they want to buy stuff they see on TV, and they want links to new episodes," all of which Zeebox intends to provide, although it won’t be providing it in the U.S. until later this year.
Next: The view from a social-driven TV property and a media giant.