Local stations have been experimenting with interactive elements in their television broadcasts for more than 30 years, starting with on-screen surveys and voting using the telephone as a backchannel to the station. To date, none has been wildly successful, as viewer apathy and clunky technology have made the iTV experience less than desirable for both parties.
A new service from a company called MegaPhone Labs (www.megaphonelabs.com) has come along that could change that equation. The company itself was originally conceived by Jury Hahn and Chris Kairalla at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, and was founded as a business in the fall of 2007 by Hahn and Dan Albritton, now the company's president and CTO.
The service is called DialPlay TV and — using telephones, the Internet and Amazon cloud-based services — can have a station up and running, with real-time interaction from consumers via an overlay or inlay of codes embedded inside the programming, within a matter of hours. Literally. And because it's cloud-based, there's no capital expenditure for the station. The cost is based on viewer usage.
Due to the platform's Web-based component, viewers can interact with each other via social media platforms and discuss what's on the screen. Broadcasters can leverage these results on-screen immediately, further stimulating the use of the system.
Mark Yackanich, CEO of MegaPhone Labs, said that DialPlay TV is already available in more than 100 million U.S. homes; nationally via The Weather Channel and locally on a Saturday morning lifestyles program called "Weekend Today in New York" on NBC's flagship station NBC 4 New York. Both broadcast and cable outlets have been testing the system live (for trivia and polling) for the past year. Implementation for the stations themselves is minimal, requiring just a Web-connected Mac or PC in a broadcast control room. The application is built in Flash and can be customized or branded in any way required. To launch the application, the broadcaster simply visits a custom URL and the application connects back to MegaPhone's servers in the cloud.
The company got its commercial start in 2008 producing content and interactive applications for digital signage networks and out-of-home events using the telephone system (using keypad presses and voice commands). It has since added HTML5 coding to allow viewers to use their computers, tablets or smart phones. It showcased the technology for an interactive ad campaign for Budweiser — via "Whack-a-Mole" application — on New Year's Eve night, whereby people on the street could interact with a giant video screen in New York City's Times Square, and play against each other, using their cell phones.
From the viewer's perspective, the only requirement is a phone — a smart phone or a landline. To date, MegaPhone Labs' customers have seen an average of a 75 percent retention rate and as high as a 38 percent response rate from participants, the company said. It is also seeing 40 percent of a show's audience dialing into the showing before the actual segment opens the lines for voting. One show producer said he experienced about 5 percent of his audience call into the show 35 minutes in advance of the show's airing (placing their phones on hold). That's how much they liked the experience.
MegaPhone Labs staff takes that audience feedback, categorizes it based on what the client wants, applies logic to it in the cloud, and then manages the on-screen experiences.
"We are impressed by the level of instant interactivity and feedback from viewers," says Meredith McGinn, director, news, NBC 4 New York. "The feedback we've received thus far from all demographics, ages and family types is extremely positive. We are encouraged by the level of engagement and committed to utilizing this technology to expand our reach and creativity for our viewers."
The company's technology has been deployed in 43 sports professional stadiums and has made an SDK available for developers to build custom applications.
"MegaPhone Labs were once focused on connecting people to content on TV screens," said MegaPhone's Yackanich. He once worked for NBC 4 New York and Hulu in their online media departments. "We're now looking to connect viewers to each other to drive conversations around specific shows while maintaining interactivity as part of that conversation. That can be monetized fairly easily in a variety of ways."
"Clearly there's a business here that everyone wants to go after, but program providers have been unable to develop products at scale that work everywhere in all television households, partially due to limitations in traditional distribution technologies and partially due to industry fragmentation," Yackanich said. "Bottom line: It hasn't happened. We think that could and should change."
The company has also announced a set of Twitter integration tools to allow broadcasters to add social media conversations into their on-air programs. Several TV shows are now being designed around real-time audience participation via Twitter and Facebook, using MegaPhone Labs' iTV technology.