Television powerhouses Comcast and HBO believe they have an answer to the menacing spread of mobile devices and tablets — Zeebox.
And Wednesday night, it gets its first big test: the inaugural presidential debate of the 2012 election.
Comcast's NBC News has customized its own Zeebox page for the broadcast, replete with a feed of Tweets, NBC apps and a custom-built widget enabling users to share specific moments or quotes from the debate in real-time.
It also will test Zeetags — a series of relevant tags or topics listed listed on the show's Zeebox page. For this debate, that ranges from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to foreign policy and health care.
"There's no better program than a debate to use the second screen," Ryan Osborn, senior director of digital media for NBC News, told TheWrap.
"Debates are innately social TV, and if you look back, people remember specific moments from each debate: 'You're no Jack Kennedy' or Al Gore's lock box. Those things today would manifest themselves in hashtags, and you can see that in our Zeebox experience."
Originally a hit in the U.K., Zeebox launched in the U.S. last week with two major players aboard that could make it a game-changer: Comcast, including NBC Universal, and HBO.
Offering TV addicts a way to discover new shows, tweet along with celebrities and even vote for performers on shows like “The Voice," its combination of unique show-related content, easy social interaction and more powerful advertising have some experts smitten.
"It's sort of the best thing in the world when the U.K. does well with something because it's an active, interactive community, and Zeebox is the mother of interactive TV in the U.K.," Lori Schwartz, founder of World of Schwartz, a digital and entertainment consultancy firm, told TheWrap. "It's a precursor on a practical level to having success elsewhere."
Indeed, in England Zeebox has built an audience of 1.5 million users in less than a year, helped by its partnership with BSkyB.
Research shows that the vast majority of television viewers use some combination of a smartphone, tablet or laptop while watching television.
As a result, a number of start-ups have rushed to create apps to entice those consumers, grafting off of Twitter and Facebook, offering the chance to "check-in" to a show and linking to related content like IMDb and Wikipedia.
Networks, too, have created their own apps, either for specific shows or for their entire slate of offerings.
Apps specific to a network or show are limited in scale, however. And while there are companies like GetGlue and IntoNow that span all the shows, not one of them has built up a big enough audience to suggest it is essential for TV viewers.
Zeebox pleases networks by stirring interaction on social media for every show on air, promoting apps specific to a show or brand and offering all kinds of additional content. Its user interface — the way one accesses and interacts with the app — has also drawn raves.
The app also pleases advertisers by using ads contextually relevant to the user and show.
"No platform is as broad and deep as Zeebox, and no one so far has struck the breadth and depth of partnerships we’ve announced,” Jason Forbes, EVP and general manager of Zeebox in the United States, told TheWrap.
“One of challenges Zeebox saw in the U.S. landscape is that the players out there are focused on social – checking in, getting a sticker – but for most U.S. consumers the social pillar is not enough,” Forbes said. “Zeebox has five foundational pillars and social is just one."
The others, he said, are discovery, information, e-commerce and interactivity.
Forbes worked at Time Warner Cable as SVP of strategy and new products when he found out about Zeebox. He joined shortly thereafter, wooed by its comprehensiveness.
“Comcast and NBCU, huge and capable innovators in the media space, both made the decision that instead of building their own app, Zeebox was a better decision,” he said. Zeebox's partners have all invested in the company and can now customize the pages for any of their shows.
NBCU and HBO also promote Zeebox within their shows, just as Zeebox will promote those networks' shows within the app.
“NBC did due diligence across all global second screen players and came to a resounding conclusion," Forbes told TheWrap. "It chose to invest in us.” He also hinted that other partnerships are on the way.
Last week's release quoted executives from the companies with glowing remarks.
NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke said Zeebox “presents tremendous opportunities for our viewers and our advertisers” while HBO co-president Eric Kessler called it “unique” and Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit said it “will make viewing live TV more engaging, compelling and fun.”
NBC's Osborn, who said he experimented with all the second-screen apps out there for the presidential debate Wednesday night, agrees. "This is the richest experience I've seen on the second screen," he told TheWrap. "It's not just a check-in, not just a reward. It's all of these things in one place, driving discovery of our own apps."
Still, the question for Zeebox is whether its innovative features, like featuring celebrity tweets about a specific show with a link to the Zeebox page, will lure enough users. Though using Twitter while watching TV is quite common, the future of apps devoted to show-related activity remains murky.
"No one knows research-wise if you're really adding eyeballs or taking them away with second screen apps," Schwartz said. "But everyone knows they have to play in this space or someone else will do it."
"The major investment from networks means Zeebox is going to get a lot of love and a lot of growth, and because it is leveraging solutions and technology that's already worked, it is coming to market with a maturity that none of these other platforms have had."