One TV app to rule them all? That’s the aim of U.K.-based startup Zeebox, which is launching Thursday in the States with big helping hands from Comcast, NBCUniversal and HBO.
The Zeebox app lets users enter the name of the show or channel they're watching TV and then delivers enhanced and related content culled the Web, provided by TV programmers, social networks and advertisers. The free-to-download app, available for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android smartphones and the Web, also includes e-commerce features. It does not provide automatic-content recognition.
“We’ve built a universal application that works across content and across providers,” said Ernesto Schmitt, Zeebox’s co-founder and CEO. “It’s an open platform for the industry to join in.”
Comcast and NBCU have each taken separate equity stakes in Zeebox; the amount of their investment was not disclosed. Other investors include BSkyB in the U.K.
As a strategic investor, NBCU will add tags to provide enhanced content through the Zeebox app across a broad swath of its content. It is Zeebox-enabling a total of 307 shows, which includes 165 shows across 14 networks nationally and 142 shows across 11 owned NBC stations and three regional sports networks, according to Page Thompson, NBCU’s executive vice president of strategic integration.
“That scope and scale has never happened in the second-screen space before,” Thompson said.
NBCU and Comcast also will promote Zeebox with TV ads. Starting in mid-October, NBCU will be running advertising for the app on every NBCU network, and Comcast will insert ads on more than 30 networks where it sells local advertising.
“We decided to look at all the second-screen apps in all the world -- and we decided that Zeebox has the best platform,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of second-screen apps that do one thing well. Zeebox does a lot of things well.”
Since launching in the U.K. last October, Zeebox has signed up 1.5 million users, who use the app an average of 27 times per month, according to Schmitt. The company sees an opportunity to become the de facto TV companion app, given the highly fragmented nature of the emerging second-screen world.
Zeebox has plenty of company. Others that have developed TV companion apps include Dijit, GetGlue, Miso, Peel, Shazam Entertainment, TV Guide Digital, Viggle and Yahoo’s IntoNow.
“We understand the context of live television,” Schmitt said. “It’s a rich experience you just don’t find anywhere else. If you give consumers one place where they can interact with content, that’s why they come back to use the app.”
In the U.S., Zeebox will initially be able to identify programming on about 150 channels nationwide and local programming in five large designated market areas (DMAs). According to the company, the app will cover 97% of U.S. TV viewership.
For Zeebox’s U.S. launch, HBO, the startup’s exclusive premiere network partner, will provide social networking and discovery features for original programming such as Boardwalk Empire and True Blood as well as shows like Strike Back from Cinemax.
“Our audiences have demonstrated a clear commitment to connecting with HBO and Cinemax programming on a deeper level,” HBO co-president Eric Kessler said in a statement. “Zeebox offers a unique, comprehensive platform that drives discovery, engagement and conversation around our most beloved programs and stars.”
Comcast before the end of the year plans to integrate the ability to change the channels from within the Zeebox app. “Zeebox is a really compelling second-screen companion viewing platform, and we’re excited to join such a strong group of industry partners in its launch,” Comcast CEO Neil Smit said in a prepared statement.
Schmitt said Zeebox is in active negotiations with other pay-TV and programming partners and expects to announce additional U.S. partners before the end of the year.
For NBCU, the Zeebox app will not only drive discovery and engagement of shows but also make live TV advertising more valuable. "Now people can see the beautiful spot on the screen, and then click on the ad on their device for more information," Thompson said.
Today "we are not ready to talk about our advertising plan," he added. "We anticipate there will be a tremendous amount of interest."
According to Schmitt, “The whole economic purpose of Zeebox is to provide a next-generation advertising platform.” He noted that Zeebox does not sell any advertising itself; instead, its network partners work with agencies and advertisers to sell second-screen ads and Zeebox takes a cut.
NBCU plans to provide even tighter integration between its programming and Zeebox. For example, starting with the Oct. 1 airing of The Voice on NBC, the network plans to provide additional material including links to videos of past auditions, artist trivia, the ability buy the music from the show and shots of the judges backstage. The network’s broadcasts of Notre Dame football in October will provide Zeebox users with stats, trivia, highlights from the current and previous games and other features.
Eventually, NBCU expects to insert Zeebox on-screen promos into shows directly. For example, users might be encouraged to play along with a live TV program or vote for which song they’d like a band to play on a show’s next episode, Thompson said.
Zeebox won’t replace all the network- and show-specific apps NBCU has built, Thompson said. In fact, it will provide links to those apps for superfans of a show.
“The reason Zeebox is such a great app for us is because we’re taking all the tweets, apps, games and other digital content and bringing them to the customer in a simple, beautiful intuitive guide,” he said.
For now, the Zeebox app works only with live TV -- not DVR content. “It’s single-mindedly focused on live TV,” Schmitt said. “As soon as you go off-schedule, you aren’t watching when other people are watching.”
On the back end, the Zeebox service identifies live TV programming using a combination of video fingerprinting, audio content recognition and closed-captioning information.
According to Zeebox’s research, up to 70% of U.S. television viewers are interested in the features set its app provides.
Features of the Zeebox app include: a seven-day TV program guide across all major U.S. TV channels; integration with Facebook and Twitter to enable social discovery of TV content and interaction with friends and TV celebrities; and information about shows, talent, topics and products mentioned on TV, synchronized second by second with the live show.
Zeebox also has the ability to include e-commerce links to relevant digital and physical products related to shows and the content of shows. It plans to add direct links to VOD content in the near future
The company was founded in 2011 by Schmitt, a former EMI executive, and Anthony Rose, previously the chief technology officer of the BBC’s iPlayer. Zeebox is based in London and New York and expects to expand into other countries.
The U.S. operations of Zeebox are headed by executive vice president and general manager Jason Forbes, who was previously Time Warner Cable Media's senior vice president of strategy for new products and marketing.
The Zeebox app will be available free to download from Apple’s iTunes App Store and Google Play for Android phones. The Web version is available at zeebox.com.