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May 5, 2012
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BBC reveals companion screen app strategy

The BBC is going to use companion screen apps to enhance the enjoyment of programmes but also introduce audiences to what can often be a wealth of programme related information and interactivity online. The broadcaster will launch its first companion screen app this September in the form of a play-along game for Antiques Roadshow, a gentle Sunday night affair where the public bring family treasures for experts to analyse and value. The BBC is harnessing the fact that most viewers already try to second-guess the experts with their own valuations. You will be able to play the game whether you are watching live or on-demand.

Victoria Jaye speaking at the Connected TV Summit 2012

Victoria Jaye, Head of IPTV & TV Online Content at the BBC, used Connected TV Summit last week to make the announcement but also outline the general companion app strategy for the broadcaster. She views show-related companion activities on smartphones, tablets and even the PC as a way to explore new creative opportunities. She made it clear that ownership of the app, in terms of the content and viewer experience, will belong to the production teams and that this is considered crucial. The production department will drive the format, while the technology development team will realise their vision.

Antiques Roadshow will be the first publicly available BBC companion screen app but the broadcaster will be working on a ‘handful’ of projects over the next 18 months that could end up as nothing more than a paper study or a full public launch. That may not sound like that much for a broadcaster with significant resources and a market lead when it comes to all things online and interactive. But Jaye stressed: “We are in no hurry. We will pilot very carefully and selectively.”

Ultimately, the broadcaster would like a companion app of some kind to accompany every one of its television shows, even if it is a fairly simple affair. The BBC already provides information for all its shows online so part of the exercise is making sure this is available in new formats. Jaye made it clear during the conference that part of the value of a companion app is to bring programme accompaniments that exist already on the PC, possibly in another room, closer to the television.

The broadcaster has already piloted two companion apps, one for its flagship natural history programme Frozen Planet and the other for the Saturday night quiz show Secret Fortune. Jaye says they wanted to test companion experiences against two different genres and the lessons will be captured in the Antiques Roadshow launch. “What the audience told us about Secret Fortune is that it is all about playing together,” she revealed. “It was clear that ‘social’ can mean simply playing together in the living room but people also have a sense of togetherness with the nation. They said the experience was much more fun live rather than on-demand.”

So with this light entertainment, Saturday night quiz show, the companion experience played into the idea of family togetherness, Jaye concluded. “The other end of the spectrum was Frozen Planet,” she continued. “That is ‘wow TV’ and when watching, you are in awestruck mode rather than ‘shout out’ mode, so we wanted to explore the opportunities for a companion experience around a programme like this. Broadly speaking, it comprised information about the animals and their habitat and there was an opportunity to consume this when the show was over,” she explained.

Antiques Roadshow: A popular BBC programme on-air since 1979

“The audience did not expect a companion experience around such a visually wonderful show but they saw it as a new way of viewing documentaries and saw its educational potential. A real winner was the ability to come back to the content when the programme was over.”

Among the lessons learned with the Frozen Planet companion experience, one will please all broadcasters. “The audience told us they want content from the BBC production team on the companion, including our on-screen experts. They are less comfortable being introduced to Wikipedia, for example.” This explains the insistence that the production teams should lead development and own the companion app. There was one other lesson Jaye shared with the Connected TV Summit audience. “They wanted to be welcomed into the experience a bit better. They needed help orientating themselves to the experience, to know what it is and why it is there.”

Jaye made it clear that the Red Button is still central to BBC interactive ambitions. The broadcaster views its existing Red Button services as the original example of companion activity (although not on a companion screen) and is drawing from its experience of what viewers want beyond the programme. And she declared: “We see the future of Red Button as a crucial access point between broadcast and on-demand content – a way to link audiences seamlessly between our services on-air and online.”

She also said the broadcaster will be focusing in the next year on driving “big audiences” into BBC iPlayer, the catch-up TV service that as everyone knows is available online through the PC, a whole range of connected TV devices, tablets, phones and on managed operator VOD platforms. Programme companion apps will help with this.

“Multi-screen allows us to join up the dots,” she said. “Companion experiences will help audiences enjoy content more and find the breadth and depth of our online content. By connecting the dots in a seamless way we can deliver better public service broadcasting: programmes that are more fun and more entertaining. We can make more of our content inventory visible to viewers. We want to connect audiences to our online inventory, provide a world beyond the broadcast that we curate and take them on a wonderful journey.”

Check out our other second screen and companion screen stories in the Videonet archive, under‘Companion TV’.