A technology designed in Britain to complement television viewing launches Thursday in the U.S., in partnership with three high-profile media partners: Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal and HBO.
Zeebox seeks to harness the small screens in the living room to enhance the TV experience. Its application for smartphones and tablets automatically identifies the program the viewer is watching, then displays relevant information and loops in conversations from social networks.
A viewer checking out HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” would be able to invite Facebook friends to watch the episode, see what people are saying about the show on Twitter, read star Steve Buscemi’s biography, or follow links to learn more about Prohibition or the notorious gangster Al Capone.
“Today, as you sit in front of the TV, millions are watching the same show you’re watching, but you’re watching in isolation,” said Anthony Rose, Zeebox’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “In the future, you will watch TV -- but virtually, with other people.”
Network executives hope the technology, which launched a year ago in Britain, will make TV viewing a more social experience and encourage people to watch shows at the scheduled time so they can participate in the conversations.
A return to live viewing would address one of the greatest technological threats to the television business: time-shifted viewing, in which people record a show to watch on their own schedules and skip over the commercials that underwrite much of the cost of programming.
“One of the problems that the industry’s had -- particularly here in the U.S. -- is that they’ve really burdened the shows with so many ads now," said Colin Dixon, a senior partner with the research firm Diffusion Group. “There are just too many opportunities for viewers to disconnect. Products like this may soften the advertising load, because you’ve got something to do while the ads are on.”
Zeebox contains a next-generation program guide, which provides a comprehensive television schedule and includes such advanced features as a “buzz” meter that reflects how many people are talking about each show. Enhanced discovery tools, including a ranking of the top shows and a way to see what programs friends are watching (or plan to watch), are designed to help users pick which shows to view.
One feature called “zeetags” analyzes closed-captioning information and delivers related content in real time. Zeebox also creates a commerce platform, allowing consumers to get more information about or buy products advertised during commercials.
Comcast and NBCUniversal invested an undisclosed sum in Zeebox, which was founded by former EMI music executive Ernesto Schmitt and Rose, a driving technological force behind the BBC’s successful iPlayer.
Page Thompson, NBCUniversal’s executive vice president of strategic integration, said the company plans to enhance 300 of its shows to take advantage of Zeebox’s technology -- including NBC’s top-rated prime-time entertainment show "The Voice” as well as Notre Dame football games.
Starting next month, Zeebox features for “The Voice” singing competition might include such complementary content as video of the funniest auditions, backstage footage or audience voting, Thompson said. Notre Dame games could allow viewers to connect with the school’s alumni network or purchase Fighting Irish merchandise.
“We’ve had a lot of people here at NBC who were developing really good second screen apps,” Thompson said. “Zeebox brings together all of these different elements in a beautiful interface that someone can have on a tablet in front of them.”