Zeebox looks to amp up TV experience

A new player is looking to amp up the interactive TV-watching experience for U.S. audiences.

Zeebox, which already has a TV app used by 1.5 million in the U.K., launches today in the USA. Cable giant Comcast has invested an undisclosed amount. Available for Android and Apple devices and Web browsers, the free app blends a TV program guide of 150 U.S. channels for your local market with additional programming information and interactive features, including Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Millions of multitaskers already tinker with their tablets and smartphones while watching TV. More than four out of 10 (42%) of tablet owners — and nearly as many smartphone owners (39%) — use them daily while watching TV, according to Nielsen. But TV viewers have to switch among social sites, TV websites, and other apps and destinations to get the most out of their second screen. Zeebox aims to capture viewers by integrating all the needed features in a single app.

Users can invite their friends to watch along with them on Zeebox and rate programs. That “buzz” score might lead others to tune in to a program. “This becomes really your all-in-one-app to use while you are watching TV,” says Anthony Rose, Zeebox co-founder and chief technology officer.

The free app incorporates information about the majority of U.S. TV channels. And HBO and NBC Universal have pledged to develop enhanced features for their shows. NBC plans to have special features on Notre Dame football broadcasts starting with the Oct. 6 matchup with the University of Miami (7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 PT). And broadcasts of The Voice will have new interactive content beginning Monday.

Initial features might include sports highlight videos and team-specific Twitter feeds — only Fighting Irish tweets and none from Hurricane fans. Viewers will be able to buy Notre Dame merchandise, too. Early additions for Zeebox viewers of The Voice will include trivia and information about songs being covered. Polls will be added soon and, by the season’s end, hosts of NBCU reality or nightly talk shows “could be talking about Zeebox as a way to interact with the shows,” says Page Thompson, NBC Universal’s executive vice president for strategic integration.

Zeebox is in discussions with other major networks on using its platform, something Thompson applauds. “It’s not about one show on one night,” he says. “It’s about everything on TV being enhanced.”

The ability to sell merchandise and target ads to viewers could entice other networks to join ranks with Zeebox. “If there is an Audi ad on TV, I’m getting the one for the RS4 and my wife is getting one potentially for the pink A3 because of our viewing behavior and our gender,” Rose says.

NBC can sell advertisers “an ad on their shows, plus a second-screen ad that is going to be interactive and targetable — not just to households but even to people within a house,” Rose says. “Advertising will get reinvented.”

Networks and advertisers alike have been looking for ways to better engage viewers and discourage them from skipping commercials. Zeebox could be “an interesting solution,” says Jim O’Neill, research analyst at Parks Associates. “They can better target consumers with ads that are more likely to be seen than those that are on TV, because they’ll be on the iPad or iPhone that those ‘distracted viewers’ are now spending so much time with,” he says.

And the viewer experience could continue to improve. Comcast plans to add remote-control capability to the app, something subscribers to the U.K.’s Sky pay-TV service already have. “It’s like a super remote control with benefits,” O’Neill says. “What Zeebox brings to the table is a little bit of a track record as well as just enough coolness to be attractive to the U.S. audience.”