Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Comcast and NBC Put Money, Marketing Into a Social TV App: Zeebox Lands in the U.S.

There are lots of “social TV” apps out there, and none of them have any real traction. But here comes another one, armed with a significant advantage: A big push from one of TV’s biggest programmers.

Zeebox, which has garnered a lot of attention, and some users, in the U.K., has landed in the U.S. And if you stop reading now but turn on an NBCUniversal channel later this year, you’re going to end up hearing more about it, anyway: The cable and broadcast programming giant, along with its corporate cousin Comcast Cable, has invested in the start-up, and says it will give it a huge marketing push.

That means you’ll see Zeebox ads and logos when you watch NBC, as well as Bravo, USA, SyFy, etc. And for some programs, you may see the app integrated directly into the shows themselves.

It’s hard to imagine a place for Zeebox in, say, “Animal Practice,” NBC’s vet-plus-monkey sitcom. But it could easily be integrated into reality shows like “The Voice.” The same for NBC’s Notre Dame football broadcasts this fall.

So what is Zeebox? If you’ve played with other social TV or “second screen” apps, you’ll find it familiar: It’s an ambitious mix of features, like an online program guide, links to and from social services like Facebook and Twitter, and all kinds of extra data about the shows you’re watching (which Zeebox will provide for non-NBC shows, as well). All of it is meant to be consumed while the shows are live, which NBCU hopes will encourage people to stick around longer and boost ratings.

The Zeebox folks ran me through a quick demo earlier this week, and I’ve poked around in the U.K. version.

All of it seems quite slick, presumably because of Anthony Rose, the Zeebox CTO who helped build the BBC’s well-regarded iPlayer video app/service. Presumably, Zeebox will also have some quirks and kinks to iron out as it launches, but right now you should be able to get it as an Android or iOS app, or via the Web.

So all of that is a big deal if you’re in the second-screen industry, because it means a very big TV player is trying to king-make a service, and that will end up freezing out other contenders, like GetGlue or Yahoo’s IntoNow (Time Warner’s HBO is also endorsing Zeebox, but it’s a much less robust tie-up, and the pay-cable company will simply use it along with other services it is experimenting with, says HBO digital head Alison Moore.)

And if you’re a consumer? Hard to say. You could probably find some value in Zeebox if you only used the channel guide (later this year, Comcast cable customers will  be able to use the app as an actual remote, too). But there are plenty of online channel guides.

The main point of Zeebox is to see what other people are saying about the show you’re watching, and to soak up other goodies while you watch. Like, say, an explainer for HBO’s byzantine “Game of Thrones.”

But the problem with Zeebox, like every other social TV app, is that it seems designed around a business problem — how can we get people to stay with our shows longer or hang out on our service? — instead of consumer problems.

Because lots of people actually do this stuff already: They blab about TV on Facebook and Twitter (especially when something nutso happens), and they hold their phones or tablets while they watch, and check out IMDB, Wikipedia, etc. So Zeebox’s challenge will be to convince anyone who is doing that already to do it with them. And to get people who aren’t doing any of it online, as well.

Tough sell. But they have a big partner to help them try.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald