Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

A Second Screen You Can’t Not Watch: Bravo’s “Play Live” Adds Polls, Games to All Its Shows

TV programmers have been asking viewers for their vote for a long time. Some shows, like “American Idol,” are built around the concept.

Now Bravo is taking the idea a step further. The Comcast cable channel is going to add on-screen, real-time polls and graphics to all of its shows.

Starting next month, with the new season of its “Watch What Happens Live” gabfest, Bravo will start overlaying its new programing with its homegrown* “Play Live” technology. What that means: Viewers will see polls, contests and other interactive games and graphics that pop up on-screen throughout the show. They’ll be able to participate in real time, via a Web broswer, and on-screen results will change, based on viewers’ input.

Here’s a mockup of what that might look like on your LCD:

Other programmers, including Bravo, have played with live interaction before. But those generally aren’t really “live” experiments — viewers who vote for something via text message, for instance, still have to wait to see their votes tallied up.

And while some cable systems now let viewers do real-time voting via their remotes, those efforts are hemmed in by the cable companies’ geographies — if you’re a Time Warner Cable customer in New York, you can’t watch and vote in sync with a Comcast customer in Philadelphia.

This time around, though, the interactive stuff is being added directly at the source, as Bravo’s signal gets beamed out across the country from an operations center in New Jersey. Which means it will appear on any of the 90 million screens that Bravo can potentially reach.

Bravo will let advertisers sponsor the graphics, and may eventually use the same technology to create interactive advertising, as well. For now, the main hope is to make the shows that much more engaging, so the network can keep or add viewers.

That’s the same goal as every other “second screen” application, including Zeebox, which Comcast is also backing. But most second-screen apps are purely opt-in — if you don’t fire up your MacBook or Android, you won’t see them.

That’s not the case here. So, what happens if you don’t want to see interactive graphics across the bottom of your favorite Bravo shows?

Lisa Hsia, who heads up digital media for Bravo, says the network will likely deploy the graphics sparingly the first time it airs a new show — perhaps a few times per episode. But it will likely up their use during repeats, which it will promote as “interactive episodes.”

She argues that Bravo viewers have proven to be very comfortable interacting with their shows. Last season, for instance, a Web video and video-on-demand extension of “Top Chef” generated eight million views, and attracted a quarter of the show’s on-air audience.

And, while this stuff may not work at all during, say, an episode of “Breaking Bad,” Bravo’s chatty, catty programming aesthetic should sync up well with it. If you’re comfortable watching “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” you’re probably quite willing to share your thoughts on the cast — or are at least okay with seeing what other people think.

The trick will be figuring out exactly how much interaction Bravo’s audience wants. “It’s our job to do it in a fashion that makes the fan enjoy it,” Hsia says.

*Bravo says it spent a year on the technology, which is built on interactive TV software from start-up MegaPhone Labs.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”