Morgan Guenther, former president of TiVo, is CEO of AirPlay, a San Francisco startup marketing a play-along-with-TV game that’s built around the mobile phone. Subscribers (who pay a $2.99 monthly fee) play against each other, predicting, via text message, what’s going to happen next while watching CBS’s Big Brother, NBC’s Deal or No Deal or National Football League contests on various networks (starting with last Thursday’s season opener between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins on NBC). An online version is at Airplay.com and partner sites. Guenther was in New York last week and spoke with MCN executive editor Kent Gibbons. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: The perennial question is — when will interactive TV become a big thing? Is the mobile phone going to be the link that makes it happen?
Morgan Guenther: We believe that we’ve actually cracked the code on interactive TV, which dates back billions of dollars, all the way back to [Time Warner Cable’s mid-1990s] Full Service Network. The reason is because of consumer behavior today. I think the last data I read was that 8-10% of all cell phone users in the U.S. have somehow participated with television using SMS [text messaging]. We’ve had 100 million votes with American Idol. It’s here, it’s happening, it’s already going on. The mobile phone has cracked the code — now where does it go from there? I think it’s the right device at the right time.
It’s not to say there isn’t a space for the Internet and for the PC or for the video game console or for the set top box. But where do we see people and how do we see them behaving today? It’s with the mobile phone.
MCN What do you need to do to make AirPlay a ubiquitous platform?
MG: We’ve been working on this for three years. We’ve raised about $25 million. We’ve got great partners like Qualcomm, Sprint, Motorola, NFL, [the National Basketball Association], CBS, Endemol. We’ve got a great list of best-of-breed partners.
We have the distribution in place, we have the partnerships in place, we have the technology. What we think we really need now is the marketing. Because unless you hear about something, unless you understand what the proposition is, you’ll never find it. It’s buried on a cellphone deck somewhere.
So all of our deals going forward include some level of on-air promotion. With Big Brother we have some on-air promotion. You need that reach and that frequency of promotion to begin to educate the consumer. We think the company is ready for that and that’s one of the reasons I’m out in New York right now, meeting with folks who can help out on that.
MCN: I’m a Time Warner Cable customer. I have a Sprint phone. Can I go home and try this out on my TV?
MG: Absolutely. And with the Sprint phone we’ve got our own category called Play Along With Live TV. So when you go to the Sprint deck, you have a separate category of experience that you can do that with. Whatever you’re watching, whether you’re live, whether you’re watching in a bar, as we’re here today, or whether you’re watching at home, you can play along with your Sprint phone [or other carriers].
MCN: When you’re talking to cable operators, what’s the business model and where do you and the cable operators benefit?
MG: When we go to the cable MSOs, it’s very much around distribution. They have distribution capabilities. I mean MSOs like Comcast and Cox did a joint marketing deal with Sprint, as I recall, a few years ago. I think Time Warner has done some. We look at it and say look, the mobile phone is a great device. We’re also able to access Wi-Fi and other networks in the future. You have a set top box in the home that can be used as a display, an adjunct display for us, in addition to the mobile phone. Let’s take a look at a transaction of some kind where we can benefit your viewers and you can revenue share with us.
MCN: Can you succeed without doing deals with the big multichannel distributors?
MG: Absolutely. I think you learn from being in this business over a period of time what you need to succeed. And as I mentioned, you need distribution — right now, it’s mobile phone distribution.
Would you like to be working with the large distributors, would you like to be working with the large MSOs? Absolutely. Do you need to? No, but over the long run, we’d like to work with all of them.