Television finds salvation in the zombie apocalypse

Still from FX's The Walking Dead
Image caption Day of the dead: Everyone loves a zombie it seems - so much so that shows like FX's The Walking Dead have been a huge hit. Could apps designed to complement shows like this throw big broadcasters a lifeline?

Where are you reading this?

If you're not at work catching up when you think the boss isn't looking, you're quite likely to be on the sofa in front of the television.

If so then you're not alone.

According to research by Nielsen 88% of US tablet owners use them while watching TV at least once a month, with 45% using them several times a day. In the UK, that figure is 80%, with 24% using it daily.

These countries may be at the top of the list - but the figures point to a growing trend.

Rather than resign themselves to audiences watching with half an eye, while posting pictures of kittens on Facebook, broadcasters are looking for ways to harness this trend to keep viewers engaged.

Image caption Each year the global broadcast industry descends on Amsterdam's Rai conference centre in September

No verifiable eyeballs on your content leads to dwindling advertising income.

At IBC, the annual gathering of the broadcast industry in Amsterdam, the rise of the second screen, or companion device (that's a tablet or smartphone to you and me) was the topic of the moment.

Killer apps

If the idea of a coming zombie apocalypse keeps you up at night, you may have found yourself watching The Walking Dead for tips.

So many of us tuned in that its broadcaster, FX UK, decided to create a companion app for series two that would appeal to viewers, but that would keep those precious eyeballs glued to the screen during the important bits.

Image caption Red Bee's Steve Plunkett says soon channel apps could morph with the programming being viewed

"It was fascinating to tie [the app] with the idea of gamification with that particular programme, with that fanbase, which seemed to make sense," says Steve Plunkett, chief technology officer at broadcast technology and service provider Red Bee.

"But we had no idea how it was going to play out with the public. So we were delighted to see the take-up rates which were great."

As well as being popular with audiences, it has also won an IBC innovation award.

A bit like Cluedo for the undead, the app lets you predict how many zombies will bite the dust during each episode, who will despatch them, and the most common weapon of choice.

As each member of the undead hordes meets their maker, the app notes the kill, who was responsible and how they did it. At the end of the episode viewers discover how close they got, and can then share the results on Facebook and Twitter.

"What's interesting is that we can now accurately tie together the two screens," says Mr Plunkett.

Image caption Being able to share your kill score on Facebook and Twitter helped drive take-up of the app, says Red Bee's Steve Plunkett

"We knew exactly what episode you were watching, you just switched on and it figured everything out, and knew exactly where you were in the programme."

It uses technology known as audio watermarking, which lets the app work whether you watch live, time-shifted or recorded on your DVR.

Tiny chunks of data that are inaudible to humans are embedded in the soundtrack of the show. The device running the app then "listens" as the episode starts, works out which one you are watching and synchronises with it.

For content where it's not possible or practical to embed data, audio fingerprinting can be used, where specific audio triggers the synchronisation of an app. For devices that don't have microphones, signals sent via the internet can also be used.

Paying their way

Another show with a cult following that has its own companion app is US biker gang saga Sons of Anarchy.

The app has evolved over two seasons, according to Magic Ruby's Robert Gekchyan.

Image caption The Sons of Anarchy app started off as a way to give viewers the chance to buy the clothes the characters on the show wear - it now offers trivia and other extra value content as well as social integration

"[In our proof of concept app] you see a character you like, you want his hat, you want his jacket. They had all the items already on the website, but by presenting it on this app they really saw a huge uptake of sales.

"This year we have a full application that has trivia that gets people really engaged in the show, exclusive on-set photos and some of the writers on the show have contributed to the content in the application."

The app also synchronises with each episode, letting viewers track the conversation about episodes on social media - regardless of when they're watching.

"We built something called the social timeline so you can actually follow the show through tweets that are happening as things happen specifically in the show.

"This really works well in times-shifted environments - different time zones, catch-up TV situations where you still want to follow along the conversation."

The next step for Magic Ruby is looking at new ways of making money from these apps.

"It would probably be difficult to do the traditional or banner advertising in this space," he says.

"So it's how do we get advertisers to do interactive advertising, get involved in the show, it's not just your watching the show and this car commercial that has zero context comes up."

John Stoneman of mobile advertising specialists InMobi agrees.

"For it to be effective, it needs to be complementary to the user's experience and not obtrusive... and that's one of the great things about the second screen. The consumer has the option to engage if they want to, but it's not forcing them to sit through something they don't want."

Mr Stoneman believes broadcasters need to come to terms with second screen devices, and how they're being used.

Flip flop

The chief executive of online video platform Brightcove, Jeremy Allaire, believes there's a more radical shift taking place.

The company recently launched their app creation platform AppCloud, aimed at letting broadcasters and other content creators build companion apps.

Image caption Brightcove's new AppCloud platform lets broadcasters and other content providers build their own companion apps

"In my mind I think that the current effort is sort of a band-aid or a hack, and the real opportunity is when the full content experience and the applications that interact with that content are all delivered over the internet to tablets or smart TVs." he says.

The company is also creating full screen TV apps aimed at content far beyond regular programming.

"Dual screen TV apps are about really using the TV set as the second screen.

"The tablet becomes the primary screen you interact with, you make choices on, and discover on and the large display is where you have rich media and consume content and information."

Perhaps unsurprisingly he has strong views on the future of television.

"Linear television is not going to be saved by companion second-screen applications, that's for sure. I think you know more likely 90% of the content that's on linear television should really just be content that's published on demand."

Not everyone agrees. Magic Ruby's Robert Gekchyan sees things differently.

"I think people still love TV, they love the content, and now they can have the interactivity and the interactivity with their friends.

"You're by yourself on the couch and you're watching with multiple people. It's perfect for live events, for sports, for reality shows, water-cooler-type TV shows."

Future gazing

No knows what lies ahead - but maybe there's room for something in between.

Image caption The NDS future of television demo lets you 'throw' the content of your choice to to the wall

One of the most popular demonstrations at IBC is broadcast software experts NDS' video wall.

In their conception of the future the walls of our home become a giant television screen, that integrates with the wallpaper.

Content selection is done from a tablet device, and is "thrown" to the wall you want to view it on.

This can be anything from movies, television, radio, social media and news to the family calendar, the view from your nannycam, or family photos and videos.

It can be any size you want, with as much or as little content on display. Audio is directional, and advertising and other broadcast furniture can be arranged around the picture, leaving the image clean.

At the moment screen technology means the bevels are clearly visible between panels.

But it doesn't take much imagination to picture technology like Sony's new 4k ultra-high definition television, also on show at the exhibition, or NHK's 8k super hi vision, or even Dolby's glasses-free 3D making the experience even more immersive.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is clear. As a species we are likely to become ever more addicted to vast amounts of content - wherever it comes from.

As long as the zombies don't get us first...

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