Most recently, the entertainment powerhouse has tapped into Facebook and Twitter as conduits viewers can use to comment or vote in response to on-screen prompts, augmenting the modes already available through email, SMS and the Internet. “It’s an intuitive, easy–to-deploy solution that offers our viewers unique ways of getting more involved with their favorite shows and enables new interactive marketing opportunities for advertisers as well,” says Jon Dakss, NBC Universal’s vice president of technology product development.
While NBC Universal has made increasing use of Participate since its initial foray in 2007 with the show “Heroes,” including applications with the 2010 Winter Olympics, the prime-time hit “The Voice,” and various other shows on NBC, USA, Bravo and other networks, there’s not been much national publicity about these developments given the company’s desire to maintain a competitive edge as interactivity becomes ever more popular with audiences. Levels of engagement, degrees of impact on a show’s popularity and other data are kept under wraps, although some anecdotal evidence is available to suggest the strategy is paying off.
“The fact that Participate is being used with more shows than ever is the best indication that it’s working for NBC Universal,” says Paul Woidke, senior vice president and general manager of advanced advertising at NAGRA, which acquired OpenTV in 2010. Woidke also points to the recent performance of the second season premiere of Oxygen Network’s “Bad Girls of Miami,” which began using Participate this year and beat all other shows on ratings in its core demographic.
“The show was a mediocre performer in its first season,” Woidke says. “For it to start off the new season as the number one show in its demographic speaks to the power of using social networking to engage viewers.”
It’s up to individual networks and program producers to determine whether and how they want to use the Participate platform. In general it has taken awhile for producers to get comfortable with the idea, Woidke notes.
“One of the major gating issues was getting producers to understand what can be done and how the use of interactivity can help build audiences and keep them engaged,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more producers understanding the power of interactivity and putting it to creative use in ways that add to the appeal of their programs.”
The fact that viewers might see their comments from Twitter or Facebook appearing on screen during a live broadcast is an especially strong enticement to viewer engagement, Woidke adds. “The thrill of seeing their comments on air drives more participation over the networks,” he says. “Plus it’s very viral.” In other words, he explains, the surge in comments creates a viral draw on more Twitter users, which can “move the needle in terms of viewing numbers.”
Producers are finding compelling uses for voting as well. For example, the Bravo show “Top Chef” uses Participate to support voting on recipes. And the Winter Olympics had viewers vote on ice skaters’ performance, allowing audiences to compare their assessments with official results. ”When viewers vote they’re more likely to stay with the program to see the results,” Woidke notes.
OpenTV Participate is a server-based system which can process several thousand transactions per second in real time, delivering a personalized experience to viewers without requiring embedding of special client software on set-tops or other devices. NAGRA provides the backend support for pulling responses from different platforms, triggering calls to action on air, integrating graphics and text with live program feeds and managing data capture. “The ability to manage cross-platform interactivity is key,” Woidke says, “especially when you’re talking about millions of responses.”
As comments and responses to voting prompts are fed in, the producer at the network controls determines what appears on air in the live broadcast through a simple-to-use user interface. On-air talent can be brought into the engagement, allowing them to interact directly with comments from the audience, Woidke notes.
When Participate was introduced with “Heroes” the network set up a special Web site for users to access and interact with from their computers as they were watching TV. With SMS on mobile and the social network feeds there’s no need for a special Web site to support interactivity.
Now NAGRA is working with content producers to create new applications to enhance the engagement through companion devices, including tablets and smartphones, as well as through connected TVs. All of this is part of development work with a growing list of clientele which NAGRA is not ready to disclose, notes John Tinsman, vice president for interactive systems at NAGRA.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest in companion device apps,” Tinsman says. “One of the things we expect to see is a growth in interaction rates, because it’s getting easier to interact with programming through all the outlets we support.”
Supporting input from mobile SMS, social networks, the Web, TV remotes and enhanced content apps gives show producers an opportunity to select comments and track data from a cross section of viewers more representative of the entire audience, Tinsman adds. “That’s an important benefit of Participate,” he says.
The data-gathering capabilities associated with interactivity over Participate offer important benefits on the marketing and advertising sides as well. “When viewers respond through various platforms a certain amount of data comes back – SMS phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, unique device identifiers,” Woidke says.
“Although we don’t allow any of this to be used in any way that would violate viewers’ privacy, you can use the data to aggregate users into audience or fan groups,” he explains. “If you see certain people responding a lot to a given show, you can put them in a group. An advertiser might say, ‘Can we send a message out to this fan group?’ and if people in the group opt in, they might receive a special offer.”