Scousewives, dual screens, and rich programme metadata

Like many of the best developments in technology, two-screen TV viewing has come about not because of some grand product launch or huge marketing campaign by a single company. It has been more of a natural, happy accident that the key components - home wireless broadband, smartphones and tablets, and social networks - have all risen to mainstream acceptance and come together at the right time. Moreover, rather than a grand planned user experience, it is a product of people’s natural usage habits being observed and catered to - the ultimate user-centric design process.

For those not aware, two-screen (or second screen) viewing is watching TV while using a laptop, smartphone or tablet to interact with the programme or other viewers in some way. This might be discussing a show you’re watching on Twitter (many programmes now show a #hashtag at the beginning to give audiences an “official” chat channel); playing along with the show in some way (e.g. The Million Pound Drop allows you to compete against the contestants) or just googling for further information about the topic you’re watching.

Zeebox is a new site / app which aims to formalise and organise some of the activity which has up until now occurred spontaneously, and been scattered across multiple networks and systems. Last night’s premiere episode of “Desperate Scousewives” on E4 was the first time they had partnered directly with a broadcaster to provide show-specific content in addition to their standard social aggregation features.

We were very proud to have been commissioned by Channel 4 to create an online map for the programme, showing some of the key locations from each episode. Links to these appeared in real time within the Zeebox app - allowing users to click and see where the current scene showing on their TV screen was actually taking place.

This appeared alongside a stream of other metadata (“Zeetags”) including iTunes links to incidental music as it was played, Wikipedia entires, a scouse glossary, and character profiles. The synchronisation between these and the broadcast was excellent - often appearing within a second or two of the appropriate footage on screen. I have to confess that the programme itself may not be the type of show I personally enjoy, so I was perhaps glad of the extra distraction! I did however feel the extra background detail genuinely added to the experience.

For me, the Twitter feeds, which feature prominently on the Zeebox screen and have so far been the core of the product, were less successful than the metadata stream. Although they offer what is essentially a version of Twitter’s lists - “Starwatch” (tweets made by relevant celebrities), the feeds were less useful to me than an iPhone Twitter client or the Twitter website itself since you can’t currentlyt view conversation threads, people’s profiles, etc. and even for 140 characters, there is very little screen space to make the tweets easy to scan through.

It will be interesting to see how Zeebox evolves - they appear to have big ambitions and funding, and obviously there is a demand for this type of interaction. A natural evolution would be replaying the live Zeetags alongside catch up services such as iPlayer and 4OD. iTunes links to incidental music obviously provides some revenue to them - you could imagine this kind of reverse product placement working to provide links to retailers of clothes, products or furniture feature in programmes.

You can also imagine the enhanced programme metadata streams working well for programmes such as the news (providing links to scientific research sources, background information on topics, geographic positioning of stories on a map) or Question Time (links to quoted newspaper articles, speeches, statistics sources, etc). Providing compelling additional content has to be the way forward for service like this - merely filtering and aggregating social media just can't be a sustainable model.

While the public are getting on and having these dual screen experiences right now, I know the BBC are actively developing second screen technologies and content experiments. I hope they don’t end up building an iPlayer-esque model where the official BBC second screen stream is the only way of consuming this content. Ultimately, there must be public value in making editorially generated programme metadata available as pure data streams, so services such as Zeebox can build innovative interfaces around them, and users can consume them on a second screen device of their choice.

Our Desperate Scousewives map, based on a beta version of a wider mapping project we are currently developing, will continue to be updated with more content for each episode throughout the series.

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