The Battle for the Second Screen

Matt McNally, November 2012

In our blog post a couple of weeks ago discussing some of the findings which have come out of the second wave of our Future Media Research Programme (FMRP), we argued that when it comes to remote control functionality on a second screen device, providers have to get the basics right first and then work up to incorporating more of the funky, new-world stuff such as personalisation and integration with other second screen apps. What we didn’t touch on too much was who these providers would be – who is best placed to give me my remote control app? And then who is best placed to give me my interactive second screen apps? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, who is best placed to give me an aggregated and integrated second screen experience?

Some of the answers to these questions stem naturally from the criteria which would make a successful app; others are not so easy to decide. In order to make the second screen landscape easier to understand, as part of FMRP Wave 2 we introduced a typology, in which we divided second screen apps into four categories. These categories were:

  • Remote Control: Apps which are used to control the TV inside the home, they feature functionality such as channel change, turning the TV on/off, search and discovery, and PVR management.
  • Remote Management: Apps which are used to manage a set top box or TV whilst away from the home – functions could include remote record, account management, or remote PVR/Planner management.
  • Content Interaction: Apps which serve as a companion to the TV viewing experience whilst in home – these can range from play-along apps, to discovery apps, to apps which use functionality such as audio content recognition to enhance the TV experience.
  • Remote Consumption: Apps which allow consumers to consume content whilst away from the TV – Sky Go comes under this category, as do the FTA player apps.

For this article, let’s consider remote control. For simplicity, we will break up the potential providers into the four groups which make up the TV Value Chain: the programme makers; the broadcasters; the platforms; and the Smart TV screens. We will also add a catch-all ‘third parties’ group.

It is obvious that the sheer nature of basic remote control functionality – changing channels – rules out one of these groups immediately: the broadcasters. The idea of ITV creating a remote control app which allows you to switch to BBC1 halfway through The X Factor is absurd, as is the idea of creating a successful remote control app which only allows channel change between channels of one particular broadcaster. For similar reasons the content providers also have little to no incentive to create a remote control app.

How about third parties? The best (and frankly, only) current example of a fairly popular and independent third party remote control app is Zeebox, so it makes sense to use this as a starting point when discussing third party pretensions to the ‘remote control app-of-choice’ crown. To be honest in terms of pure remote control functionality, Zeebox is pretty limited. There is no volume control, and no ability to switch inputs or turn the TV on/off. Furthermore, it only works with certain brands and iterations of Smart TV (not exactly a mass market), and cannot control my Sky/Virgin box, manage my PVR or do a lot of the other stuff we just take for granted with the traditional remote control. However, Zeebox does have one big thing going for it: rather than being simply a remote control app, it is also a companion app. Users can change channel using the app, and then interact with the show they’ve just switched to using the very same app. This potential for aggregation of companion experiences is to us a major plus point, and one which deserves a blog post of its own, so we’ll leave it to one side for now.

Smart TV Manufacturers are quite an intuitive choice to provide a remote control app, as along with the platforms, they are one of the groups in the value chain who already have a traditional remote control in consumers’ homes. You might imagine that any remote control app from a TV Manufacturer would include all those basic functions we mentioned in our other post: input switching, volume control, an on/off button, and so forth. However, you would be wrong. Attempts at remote control apps from the manufacturers so far have been disappointing at best: Samsung’s for example, allows you to adjust volume, and scroll through channels, and that’s it. There isn’t even a TV guide, or the ability to turn the TV on and off. However, though attempts so far have been little more than gimmicks, to show off to your mates and then never use again, taken in isolation this doesn’t mean TV Manufacturers shouldn’t be the ones to provide our remote control app. A stronger argument against this is that it is extremely unlikely that a Samsung or an LG app would ever be able to control my Sky box, or my Virgin box. And with Smart TVs not even having their own PVRs at the moment, that’s a pretty big issue. Essentially this means that no matter how much I love my Samsung remote, if I want to watch Sky, or record something, or even view a TV guide, I put my smart device down and pick my Sky remote up.

As we mentioned in our earlier post on the subject, what any serious remote control app needs to provide is sufficient functionality that consumers will stick with it, and not keep having to go back to their old remote. If consumers do keep having to put their smart device down to do useful things on the TV, after a while they will stop picking it up in the first place.  To this end, we make the Platforms comfortable winners in the debate over who is in the best position to provide a remote control app. Not only is the platform essential for any kind of PVR control or on demand viewing, but it could integrate all the desired features of a remote control in a way not seen since, well, since traditional remote control. A hefty amount of people already use their Platform remote to control their TV set, so why couldn’t the app do this as well? Only with Smart TVs admittedly, but it would be a good start, and with Smart TVs becoming more and more common in people’s homes, this would become increasingly useful. All this without perhaps the biggest benefit to having a Platform behind our remote control app: the opportunity to aggregate companion experiences, and make the remote control the catalyst for the second screen to really take off. It looks as though Sky are working along these lines with their incorporation of Zeebox functionality into the latest iteration of their remote control app. We believe that it is only the platforms which have the clout and the content to really convince consumers to make that leap into the second screen world, and put their traditional remotes down for good.

So on the whole it looks as though the Platforms have some substantial advantages in this second screen world when it comes to creating a viable second screen remote control app, and that these advantages become even greater when we toss aggregation of companion app capabilities into the mix. We therefore wait with baited breath for what Sky do next with their remote control app, and what kind of experience the soon-to-launch (though we have been saying that for about three months) Virgin TiVo app brings to the table. Watch this space!


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