While it may not get the most recognition, the relatively new “Best Interactive Program” is certainly an interesting Emmy category to watch. The 2013 Emmy winners have already been selected, but I wanted to take a closer look at another one of the nominees in the category: HBO’s Game Of Thrones Season Three Enhanced Digital Experience. I recently reviewed another 2013 nominee, Showtime’s “The Homeland SHO Sync Experience”, and will structure this breakdown in similar style evaluating the app against four key criteria: Control, Discovery, Sharing, and Enhancement.
The Game of Thrones Enhanced Digital Experience is not housed in a standalone application, but rather is included in the HBO GO platform. HBO GO is accessible in a variety of places including the web, mobile apps, and connected TV apps like Xbox Live. The digital experiences on the web and mobile all behave somewhat similar with the exception of Xbox Live, so for the purposes of this review I will only refer to the iPad and Xbox versions. HBO GO itself is not a second screen app even though it is available on mobile devices, but the Game of Thrones enhanced experience does have second screen style elements (not all mobile delivery is second screen).
Control: In the iPad version, because the interactive enhanced features are built into the player, control of the primary viewing screen is a required element. At its core, the HBO GO platform is an OTT delivery system and the ability to control the viewing window playback is a standard feature. What is most interesting about the controls while engaged in the digital enhanced experience (viewers have an option to view the episodes with or without this turned on) is that when a user selects to view any of the bonus interactive materials, the primary player immediately pauses the viewing window. Regardless of the type of content, any interaction with the enhanced experience will stop the episode until you minimize the enhanced content window. While their purpose is clearly to force the viewer to not miss anything, there are some elements where they could continue to play the content. For example, bonus video footage is worthy of stopping the episode, but a couple of stills would not be as the viewer should be perfectly capable to view both (or at least present it as an option to stop). I actually found the repeated stoppage more of a distraction than the added content would be in a continual play scenario.
The HBO GO Xbox Live app is integrated with the Xbox SmartGlass mobile application which enables viewers to use their smartphone or tablet as a remote control for their Xbox – serving as a peripheral connected TV device. The Game of Thrones enhanced experience features the exact same content within the Xbox environment, but does provide the viewer with one additional important difference with regard to control: the ability to view the enhanced content on the primary television OR select to view it within the Xbox SmartGlass application. In the latter instance, the Game of Thrones enhanced digital experience does become a true second screen viewing environment. This is a terrific option to have if you are viewing the program with others in the room who may or may not be interested in seeing the additional content. Using the controls and navigating the second screen with SmartGlass is a very intuitive and easy to use interface.
Discovery: HBO GO is an OTT delivery platform featuring content from a wide variety of HBO programming including both movies and their original series line-up. Not all of their shows have the enhanced experience, to my knowledge it is limited to only Game of Thrones at this time. Rather than build an app specifically for GoT, they simply included it inside their popular primary application. This is the ideal move considering the user base is already concentrated there so no additional marketing efforts are required to encourage viewers to download a separate experience. The added benefit is that if a viewer was not aware of another original series program, they might be exposed to that show when navigating to the Game of Thrones area. Users must authenticate their MVPD subscription credentials in order to view HBO GO content, but it does not appear HBO is doing anything with that data to customize the app experience based on the viewing data collected. Leveraging metadata to create individualized experiences within the HBO GO app is something the network should be looking at striving toward with future iterations as it would assist in enhancing discovery of other programs.
Sharing: There is plenty of debate on whether intense dramas need any social distractions at all during the broadcast and if interactivity needs to be kept to a minimum. HBO has taken the side of minimizing distractions during Game of Thrones viewing by leaving social feeds out of the HBO GO app and rarely posting on social channels during the broadcast, despite the fact fans don’t seem to mind conversing. HBO leverages social TV platform GetGlue to help stimulate conversation with episode specific badge incentives which drove 1.6 million interactions on the app for season three generating over 215 million social impressions. Despite this successful channel, the HBO GO app does not allow users to authenticate their account in order to check-in and comment on GetGlue about programs they are watching from within the HBO GO platform.
There are no social feeds present inside the app either, but all of the interactive elements during the Game of Thrones enhanced viewing experience offer the ability to share to both Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, the great piece of content that a viewer is inspired to share with their friends cannot be seen by anyone else. Each of the content elements generates a URL to be shared with their friends, but that link simply directs people to a basic information page about the interactive experience which does nothing to help stimulate social dialogue. HBO isn’t alone in this issue as I found the Falling Skies app from TNT to have the same problem. Not only does the share feature auto populate the same URL, it doesn’t include the Game of Thrones show hashtag or mention the show handle. The only social account it does populate is one for the general HBO Go account. Both of these are missed opportunities with the application. The Xbox Live experience does not include any functionality to share enhanced content, another key miss. The lack of social feeds is likely due to the inability to use the enhanced experience during the live network broadcast, but there are some modifications that could be made here to enhance the experience.
Enhancement: While social sharing falls short, enhancement of the program is where the application picks up the ball and really runs with it. The Game of Thrones is a rather complicated show to keep up with given the large number of characters and geographic areas. It also features a beautiful array of costumes, sets, and landscapes, all of which provide ample content for the network to share during the episodes. Because the content is displayed within a single screen on the web and mobile apps, the enhanced content is a seamless experience with ample variety spaced nicely throughout the program. Even in the Xbox Live version, when the SmartGlass second screen app is used, the timing of elements functions quite nicely. The responsiveness of keeping the bonus content in sync regardless of fast forwarding or rewinding is spot on accurate because the sync is done on the server side instead of needing an audio content recognition feed which can cause minor delays. Clearly, networks who build companion viewing experiences through MVPDs and OTT providers which are synced through the delivery mechanism itself will be able to produce a more accurate and easier to use system than those which require alternate coordination means to connect the content to the experience.
DVD bonus style enhanced content is interesting, but it certainly is not something that is integral or necessary to complete the viewing experience. Fans who do not wish to view the episodes with this content will not lose any of the story. This is the area where network second screen apps need the most improvement. I’m not talking solely about Game of Thrones, this is a broader problem with how networks approach what a second screen experience is and could be. The industry needs to move beyond non-essential post-production style transmedia enhancements to programming. Instead, networks should be working in tandem with show-runners to design non-linear storytelling to make enhanced experiences integral to viewing, not just complementary. With so many characters and story lines occurring during each episode, a new non-linear approach to transmedia storytelling would work well with a show like Game of Thrones. It is there that an enhanced interactive experience would really shine and revolutionize the television industry.
In general, the Game of Thrones enhanced digital experience offers fans a fantastic way to explore the GoT fictional world and to dive deeper into behind the scenes elements of the show. While enhancement and control are strong points, the sharing features of the application could use some substantial improvement. The single use app of HBO GO does open the door for discovery, but harnessing collected data to customize the presented experience could improves things in that area.
What I find most interesting about the Game of Thrones experience, is that it is not available for fans as they watch the program live during its MVPD generated broadcast. The synced Game of Thrones interactive content is only available when viewed in conjunction with the episode inside the HBO GO app, which doesn’t release until after the episode airs. This means that fans must either wait until HBO GO drops the latest episode to begin viewing it with the interactive experience, or it is something they would view in subsequent watches. It does appear HBO is going with a distraction free strategy for their new episode broadcast viewing window on Sunday nights for Game of Thrones. Not all networks agree with this though. While there is no single correct strategy, it is a choice that networks face with each of their shows.
Do you think enhanced content experiences should be available during initial episodic viewings or something that should only be made available after the original airing?
[All images were personally screen-grabbed from the iPad app & photographed from Xbox Live screen.]