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Fox Syncs Up the Fall Season

As more viewers watch more video on tablet devices, U.S. networks are increasingly focusing on so-called sync or companion apps that are designed to be used along with traditional television viewing.

These apps deliver polls, background information, trivia and other original content to the mobile devices that are directly related to what is going on in a particular episode of the show and are designed to deepen the viewer’s engagement with the show, which will hopefully turn them into regular viewers or help new viewers catch up on the action.

All the major networks have been busy developing sync apps, but Fox has been particularly active, having launched three of them so far this fall, for X-Factor, Terra Nova and Bones.

“People are spending a lot of time with tablets and smartphones while watching TV, and we are looking for ways to take advantage of that with our apps,” says Hardie Tankersley, VP of innovation at Fox Broadcasting.

Getting an exact read on the size of this potential audience is difficult because Fox and none of the other networks have released data on app downloads and usage. But a May 2011 study by Nielsen of tablet usage found that 70% of all tablet owners and 68% of smartphone owners reported they were using those devices while watching TV.

For a show like Terra Nova, Fox’s new synch app for iPad offers a way a way for viewers to “explore and better understand the world that they are seeing,” Tankersley says. “Introducing a new show and characters is always an interesting challenge, and this is an opportunity to use the second screen to make it easier for new viewers to pick up on the mythology, the characters and their relationships.”

But finding the right content and approach to these apps remains a work in progress. “Only a handful of apps have been done, and I don’t think anyone really knows what will work and what won’t,” Tankersley says. “The show is still the primary thing, and we have to be careful that a companion app is just a companion and not the main thing that grabs their attention.”

As a result, Fox has kept the screen relatively uncluttered and has focused on additional content that doesn’t draw people away from the show. “The experience of the second screen has to be light, easy and image- centric,” Tankersley says. “I don’t think viewers want to do a lot of reading.”

Such apps also face some serious economic hurdles. In the development of its apps, Fox works closely with the creative team to create suitable content for particular moments of each show. This is a very laborintensive process that makes the apps appealing to viewers but creates additional costs that currently can’t be easily recouped from the relatively nascent mobile ad business.

“That is one reason why we are only doing a handful of these apps,” Tankersley notes.

The Fox executive hopes, however, that sync apps will open up new revenue opportunities for the network.

One idea under consideration is interactive ads for the sync app that correlate to the TV ad. That would allow tablet or smartphone users to use their mobile devices to request coupons, get additional information or even buy services.

Such efforts face some technical and practical hurdles. Interactive ads take time to create and would need to be developed early on in the development of an ad campaign, making it harder to widely deploy the idea.

Also, many ads are trafficked into the schedule very close to airtime, which would create challenges for developers trying to sync up mobile devices with linear TV spots.

Fox has not set a timetable for experimenting for interactive ads tied to the TV spots, but Tankersley is hopeful that they might experiment with the idea in 2012. “Synchronizing with the ads has some technical hurdles, but is a very exciting possibility that we are looking at closely,” he says.

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