TV’s App Morass

As TV viewing becomes increasingly social, networks are faced with a difficult question: app or WAP?
With proliferation of smartphones,  not to mention the advent of tablets, just leaning back and watching a TV show is becoming passe for many. And very quickly, the practice of texting one’s friends during an episode of Fringe has given way to checking in via an app or visiting a live chat environment to talk Fringe with thousands of fans at once — all while watching the show.
Broadcast and cable networks want to cultivate this hyper engagement as much as possible. But do you build a dedicated app for every single show you put on the air — especially in a business with such high failure rates? Or are mobile websites suitable for shows that don’t engender as much conversation, like say Modern Family, while apps are for shows with the hardest of hard core followings?
“Apps are really about super engagement,” said Francisco Rivera, director of emerging business, Telemundo. “You have to be mindful of that…and super serve that user by being much more engaging.”
Rivera cited the example of apps for sporting events, which inherently engender passion and socialization. But in many cases, TV networks need to spur their audiences to interact with mobile content. “People need incentives for interacting with content,” Rivera said. “You need to provide value.”
According to James Kolstad, director of emerging platforms, USA Network, apps serve key niches, including the most engaged users, while WAP sites (Mobile Web sites) are for more general fans looking for show information and reference.
Perhaps not ever show warrants the app treatment. “Apps are very resource intensive,” said Shara Zoll, vp of operations at, who added that her network has reduced its emphasis on mobile sites.
USA’s spy drama Burn Notice is clearly app worthy. The network is planning to introduce an app featuring an original graphic novel tied to the show’s upcoming season, which begins on June 23. “We hoping fans of show will get very excited,” said Kolstad.
But with the emergence of better technology like HTML5, WAP sites are becoming capable of alot more — which may change the ecosystem, added Kolstad.
Besides whether to build mobile apps, TV networks are wrestling with whether they need to create optimized tablet sites along with apps, as TV/tablet co-viewing gains traction, and user habits are still up in the air.
But regardless of the form it takes, networks are embracing the idea of social TV viewing, for a pretty obvious reason. “All TV networks are struggling with the DVR,” said Zoll. “So live viewing  is one of the big things that is offered by [social TV apps].”
Thus, “we are trying really create the sense that we are a destination for companion viewing,” said Kolstad. “We are trying to bring people back to the screen. We’re really serving two masters.”

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