The 2013 Emmys are coming up on Sept. 22 and Showtime’s hit show “Homeland” cleaned up with 11 nominations in major categories, the most in the network’s history for a single show. Not included in that number is one additional nomination: Best Interactive Program for the The Homeland SHO Sync Experience. The app was built by second screen and connected TV application developer powerhouse Bottle Rocket who has accumulated an impressive client list in the entertainment industry. After learning about the nomination, I spent some time with the application to see how it stacked up against four key criteria for second screen experiences: Control, Discovery, Sharing, and Enhancement.
While the nomination specifically mentioned “Homeland”, it should be noted that the SHO Sync app is a multi-show experience. This means it works across several of the network’s original series line-up including “Dexter” and “Ray Donovan” inside a single application download environment.
Control: This review focuses only on the iPad experience. That said, the control elements of the SHO Sync experience are not applicable since SHO Sync is not currently integrated into MVPD set-top devices to allow for remote functionality of the primary show viewing. Instead, the content is synced using audio content recognition (ACR) and in my opinion is very responsive to the transmitted signal in both live viewing and DVR/on-demand environments. Recently, Showtime and LG announced a partnership to bring the same SHO Sync content into the primary television viewing experience on LG Smart TVs. This integration will enable much greater control for the secondary content within the primary viewing window.
Discovery: Because the Homeland SHO Sync Experience is housed under a multi-show application umbrella, it does allow for cross exposure to other network programming. It is my opinion, whenever possible, networks should always strive for their companion viewing and connected TV applications to work across shows rather than a single show app. There may be times when single apps have their place, but this should be an exception not a standard practice. From a design standpoint, the app does take a little getting used to when moving between shows with its accordion style navigation panes coupled with both vertical and horizontal content scrolling in varying areas. Once this short learning curve is over, users will quickly find that they will be presented with varying promo trailers and clips meant to entice viewers to explore other shows as well as future episodes of shows they do watch with a handy right corner widget letting you know when it is on next.
One of the best elements of this experience to promote cross-show discovery is the addition of a loyalty points system mechanic. To access the application, users are asked to create a SHO Sync account – clearly ideal for both data segmentation and behavior tracking as well as future promotional email marketing. The account, complete with a user name, allows SHO Sync to track viewer interactions with a point and badge based gaming system. Not only do individual shows have their own point leader boards, but those rankings are split by season and even other shows. The achievement badging system is a cumulation of behavior across all shows, leveraging gamification mechanics to encourage multi-show adoption. This loyalty system of sorts is currently not tied to any real world rewards. Expanding the program into that area would provide a big opportunity for Showtime to not only leverage with partners, but for creating exclusive fan experiences as rewards at conventions, etc.
Sharing: All of the elements found in the second screen content experience are sharable across Facebook and Twitter. Since most of the elements are opinion polls, there is no specific content that needs to be linked. Shares are text based and pre-populated with the show hashtag, in this instance #Homeland. Users can authenticate their accounts for both Twitter and Facebook. There are two key social networks missing though, which was an immediate standout for me: GetGlue and Tumblr. GetGlue is very surprising and a big miss for the app since Showtime does leverage their platform for weekly new episode badges. Their shows are almost always featured in the top 10 weekly list of total activity on the GetGlue platform too. Tumblr is another network who has quietly been racking up large social TV interaction numbers and is finally getting some much needed attention called to it after the 2013 VMA stats were released. Showtime shouldn’t be docked too much for not having Tumblr integration since most networks leave it out of their second screen experiences.
Given most of their second screen content is question based, another social network that they should consider integration with is Viggle on their Live platform. While not a negative for their proprietary app, it is merely an observation based on the content they create and the re-use of that information in other applications. USA did a terrific job in creating a 3rd party API to help integrate their second screen content into other applications in order to meet customers where they want to be met. The end goal is viewership and engagement. Networks need to continually focus on their owned channels/apps, but should always look to other locations to find other users who prefer alternate environments.
Back to this app, there is a conversation window area to provide a place for users to engage with other fans while still enjoying the second screen content. Rather than move them to another window, SHO Sync keeps them in the same environment. It appears that the only option for users to communicate with others is through Twitter and that conversation is centered around the show hashtag. I could not find any options to filter that feed to show just my friends, official show accounts, or favorited/popular leader board users. While this hosepipe feed didn’t pose any problems for me watching the show in the off season, it will most certainly be a problem when the show is generating a massive amount of conversation during new episodes. Showtime can keep a small social window in their second screen sync experience for the casual social chatter viewer to see some of the conversation, but for others who would rather focus on that they do need to expand this into its own window experience with greater customization. Expanding this feature to allow fans to communicate with others on alternate networks like Facebook and GetGlue should also be added to the app.
Enhancement: As I mentioned previously in the Sharing section, the SHO Sync experience focuses primarily on periodic opinion polling as its core component. This might be interesting to some fans, but an expansion on the types of content in this synced environment is needed. Working in polling with real time data results is interesting for the right moments, but as a fan of a show I would also like to see other elements like behind the scenes factoids, connections of key moments to previous episodes, or other shows and films where the cast have appeared. Having watched several episodes, information about the Muslim religion and customs as well as details on historical references would be quite useful in the app. There are many instances where Arabic is spoken without translated subtitles. All potential rewarding content to encourage second screen adoption. As a participant, I found myself getting less and less interested in answering these polling questions as the show progressed, this grew exponentially during viewings of subsequent episodes. Shows like Syfy’s Defiance and TNT’s Falling Skies both do an exceptional job at working in a variety of content for their second screen sync experiences.
One positive thing to mention about the opinion polling elements, besides the visual representation, was the timing spaced between them. Most synced content moments averaged around 5 minutes apart. Given the limited variety, this was a fair spacing and could be shortened with better content options mixed in. Since the show does not have commercial breaks, I’m not so sure I would recommend a faster pacing of synced content. Tension in the show is a key element on what makes it appealing as a viewer. Constant distractions might not be a good route to take, but mixing up the variety is most certainly needed. One benefit to keeping the synced content changes spaced that far apart, besides allowing the viewer to focus on the show, is that it gives them more time to jump in the social conversation. Of course, the social sharing area would need to be adjusted for viewers to fully take advantage of this as it’s simply not built to effectively handle that today.
Overall, the Showtime SHO Sync second screen experience app is a worthy addition to the space. Despite having flaws in the social sharing and content enhancement areas, it has a strong discovery capability in cross-show exposure driven by the loyalty points system and an interesting multi-show user interface. Control is missing here, but I have high hopes for what the LG partnership will bring to the viewing window consolidation for the synced content experience.
I had never watched “Homeland” before testing out the sync app with the first episode of season one. I must say, I was instantly hooked (watched 5 episodes in a row) and will be marathoning the show to get ready for the season three premiere at the end of September. Congratulations to the Showtime network and “Homeland” team for their impressive list of Emmy nominations. Also, congratulations to Bottle Rocket for a job well done on helping Showtime earn a nomination for The Homeland SHO Sync Experience.
[All images were personally screen-grabbed from the iPad app.]