Where’s the Volume Control?

Blimey, second screen apps are fashionable at the moment.  There is a lot of almost ‘messianic’ media noise about their potential to impact viewing behaviour and become the saviour of the broadcast TV industry. It’s as though the arrival of apps heralds a second, but slightly confusing, golden age of TV. There is also confusion about who wins in this second age and who can capture the value that second screen apps seem to offer.

There are clearly lots of different kinds of TV app coming to market. There are some apps that just want to be used when a specific programme is on.  But there are others, like Zeebox and the Sky+ app that seem to want to take over the telly completely.  Does this mean that smart devices will make the good old fashioned remote control redundant?   We have no problem with this, as it would be a natural evolution of TV hardware. It would also appear to position the platforms as the potential big winners in the app world.  However, we have been asking whether a second screen app can hope to control the telly if it doesn’t do the basic things that consumers expect from an old fashioned remote control?

In the recent wave of our Future Media Research Project (FMRP) – called ‘A Second Coming’,  we asked consumers what they use their remote control for most of all.  Most importantly, we wanted to know what functions had to be in a smart app that would make them put the remote control down, and pick up their smart phone.  We got consumers to test the new crop of second screen apps, and particularly the remote control ones like Zeebox and Sky+. The key functions which stood out were basic things – things as simple as turning the TV on and off; or turning the volume up and down; or switching between inputs. Most importantly can it be used to set the ‘record’ function? The old, trusty, ‘traditional’ remote has been doing these things and doing them well for decades.

What was interesting was that the consumers simply assumed that these apps would do all the things their old remote controls did, as well as doing all the sexy new social media things.  But of course, they don’t – yet!  None of these apps offer the full suite of capabilities which are part and parcel of any traditional remote control. Zeebox for example may be able to change channel (on Freeview for certain types of connected TV), but it is unable to turn volume up and down, set record, or turn the TV on in the first place. Our consumers had the same problem with the Sky+ app, although it can set record.   We had assumed that the providers who would really nail this would be the device manufacturers like Samsung and Sony.  But while the Samsung app may be able to alter volume, the rest of its capabilities are so limited that it’s a wonder any consumers bother to use it more than once.

There is one area where a remote control app really should outshine its less fashionable alternative. This area is search and discovery – or more specifically, personalised search and discovery. Having a remote control and an EPG on the iPad on your lap, instead of on the TV screen in the corner, opens up a world of personalisation and recommendation possibilities, especially when we throw a unique user login into the mix.  To be fair, this functionality is only now evolving to the point where it is usable in most apps.  But to capture this potential we need to get viewers over the first hurdle by getting them to put the old remote down. If we are to entice consumers away from the traditional TV remote, the new apps need to start with the basics that the remote delivers and work up – not the other way round.

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