NBCU, Comcast buy in to Zeebox to take ‘second screen’ to prime time

Second-screen TV viewing companion app Zeebox is going live in the U.S. with big production and commercial support from NBC Universal and parent Comcast (s cmsca) that the trio say will elevate the new-wave multitasking practice to the mainstream.

Siblings Comcast Cable and NBCU, which are “lead partners”, have each invested an undisclosed sum for a minority equity stake, while NBCU will also produce in-app components to enhance 307 of its shows using Zeebox. HBO (s twx) and others are due to be announced as non-equity partners.

First revealed by paidContent in mid-2011, the Zeebox app and website uses automated content recognition and publicly-available content to accompany all TV shows with social discussion, live hyperlinks to information about on-screen dialogue, a program guide, co-viewing with friends and an open, modular space for broadcasters to deliver interactive adjuncts to their own productions. It can also make tablets and smartphones act as remote controls.

Second screen’s next step?

Following on from a range of “check-in” TV apps like Miso and GetGlue, Zeebox co-founder Anthony Rose and NBCU strategic integration EVP Page Thompson say their tie-up could be game-changing for the trend in which many viewers are now multitasking while watching TV.

NBCU’s Thompson told paidContent:

“We started to look at the whole second screen space and trying to figure out who we could partner with to take second screen to a whole new level. We are fully committed to this platform in a way that I don’t think anyone has ever been in the space before. We’re going to enhance all of our shows – 165 of those are national shows on networks like Oxygen, 142 are shows across 14 of our NBC-owned stations. Throughout the whole corporation, everyone has embraced this.”

For Zeebox’s Rose, who is already likely to gain new domestic users when Zeebox begins powering new features in an app from its U.K. investor BSkyB: “It’s the next stage of this second screen space – the moment that second screen grows up.”

Broadcaster buy-in

Although Zeebox can enhance any TV show using its program guide meta data and cloud-based closed-caption recognition to feed in related information and apps from third parties, it is its OpenBox platform, with which producers can make HTML-based voting, competition or other modules to accompany their own shows, that most piques broadcasters’ interest.

As well as NBCU, HBO will be using OpenBox to augment its shows like Game Of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. For NCBU’s Thompson, the attraction is in encapsulating several disparate digital ideas:

“We have people doing great things in gamification and social – but there is always an opportunity to drive more discovery. Zeebox takes all these things people were doing and consolidates all this effort in to one simple interface.

“When a channel feels like they own the space, that’s when they get most engaged.  By enhancing live TV, we are going to increase time spent viewing and drive up higher ratings.”

NBCU’s ramp-up will begin in a few weeks when it makes Zeebox adjuncts for The Voice and its Notre Dame Football shows, including game highlights and quotes.

Then, in mid-October, just like BSkyB in the UK, NBCU will run TV commercials for Zeebox’s app across its TV channels, including Comcast channels for which NBCU sells advertising.

“Before the end of year, you will see spikes appearing on screen, saying ‘play along with Zeebox’,” Thompson tols paidContent. “You will see our talent talk about Zeebox on selected shows.”

Where’s the money?

These new creative ideas are all well and good, but what is the commercial opportunity in this apparent trend in which many viewers are using smartphones and tablets whilst watching TV?

Zeebox launched with ambitions of creating “click-to-buy” links for live on-screen products, but has made greater headway in having BSkyB’s ad sales division cross-sell its TV advertisers with display slots inside Zeebox – something which NBCU will also do.

“The curtain is just coming up on this performance,” NBCU’s Thompson said. “I don’t know what will be the most valuable part.” But Thompson cites “the ability to add value to advertisers who are running live spots with us: This makes the (TV) advertising more valuable. The consumer can interact with the advertising they see on TV. They can click for more information about, say, a car.”

During the Summer Olympics, Zeebox ran prominent sponsorships from Samsung. Zeebox’s Rose says: “Advertisers will use this technology in ways we can and can’t predict.”

Remote control

Just as Zeebox can act as a remote control for BSkyB, Virgin Media and connected TVs in the UK, Rose aims to enable this functionality for Comcast’s 24 million U.S. set top boxes “later this year”.

Zeebox is also claiming DirecTV as a U.S. launch partner – something which will see it use the satellite broadcaster’s public APIs to enable the same remote control functionality.

The competition

On top of 65 staff in London and five in Australia, Zeebox’s U.S. launch comes with 12 staff under former Time Warner Cable SVP Jason Forbes as USA EVP.

In the U.K., it has clocked 1.5 million downloads in a year and has 300,000 to 400,000 monthly unique users. Despite that scale, using Zeebox can sometimes feel like a lonely experience – users’ friends are not necessarily using it at the same time.

To remedy, the latest version is including a friend timeline that also surfaces their offline viewing. Zeebox’s heavyweight new partnerships may also give it added scale.

In the U.S., it will go up against the likes of Miso and GetGlue, but also Yahoo’s (s yhoo) Intonow, which is perhaps a more comparable application.

“Intonow comes wrapped up with Yahoo, others lack an open platform, they are all missing a trick in providing a discovery method,” Rose said.

Forbes adds: “The biggest driver is discovery. Sixty-five percent of consumers are frustrated with being able to find their favourite shows. Up to 70 percent of US consumers are saying, if there was one app to do all their favourite TV functions, they would use it on a regular basis.”