Exclusive Content, Accessible Interfaces Rule Second-Screen Space

When it comes to the second screen, it’s not unusual to hear the oft-repeated adage “Content is king.” After all, what compels people to check out their smartphones or tablets isn’t the screens themselves, it’s what’s on them. However, not all content is created equal.

“When you talk about content being at the center of the universe of Internet TV, there’s a saying out there: Content is king. And you’re going to be surprised when I say this: I don’t believe that. Content is not king,” said Damon Phillips, VP, WatchESPN and ESPN3, at last week’s Streaming Media East in New York City. “The reason why I say this is, anyone can have content. The barriers to entry are lower than they were two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago. The difference today is that live content is king, exclusive content is king, and relevant content is king. That’s what we focus on at ESPN.”

Philips would know. Delivering the keynote address at Streaming Media East, he discussed the insatiable hunger to access content on every device.

“There’s more demand from consumers,” he said. “In our case, our consumers are fans. They expect more today. What’s happened with ‘more’ is, it’s created this new category of television, which we’re now calling Internet TV. At ESPN, we made two big bets on Internet TV.”

Those “two big bets” are WatchESPN and ESPN3. WatchESPN streams live ESPN programming — including every linear channel — to desktops, smartphones, tablets, and game consoles through WatchESPN.com and the WatchESPN app. ESPN3 is an online network that carries exclusive programming, including 4,300 live events — up to 30 at one time — per year.

“We call ESPN3 the network of the future because of its ability to scale up,” Phillips explained. “From a broad perspective, we focus on two things: how do we super-serve our core TV viewer and, at the same time, [provide] a TV outlet for sports that don’t get exposure on our linear TV networks. … There are only 24 hours in a day with a linear TV network, and we have a lot of great content that just can’t make it on the linear networks because there’s just not enough time.”

With one of the last “DVR-proof” genres, sports fans expect to watch live content on any screen they choose with the same ease as they watch their primary living-room screen.

“People expect Internet TV to work just live TV,” said Phillips. “They don’t want to hear about buffering, the quality of the video, how long it takes to start, authentication. They want to turn on, and they want it to work. We’ve been working closely with a number of companies out there to help us optimize our video so we eliminate buffering, we get HD-quality video, and we have seen some dramatic differences in what we’re doing. We’re definitely leading the way in terms of video quality.”

Later in the day, a panel focused on creating OTT apps for connected devices delved further into the issue of second-screen video quality. With so many device platforms, technology frameworks, and development approaches, content providers face a multitude of obstacles in delivering video to consumers. Before creating exclusive content, for example, content providers must decide on a user-interface technology: HTML5 or Adobe Flash.

“Obviously, you would pick the technology that covers the most platforms,” said Matthew Durgin, director, Smart TV content, LG Electronics. “What I’ve seen from a business perspective is overwhelmingly people choosing HTML5, so much that it is unclear if Flash is going to continue to be supported for UI development.”

Said MLB.com SVP Joe Inzerillo, “I don’t know anyone that would consider Flash alive; it’s dead all over the place. The only place where it has any kind of life right now is the browser, and that’s trickling away. … We see our business shifting increasingly to mobile connected devices; the Web as a percentage is growing year over year, but, as a percentage of our business, it’s going down.”

The panelists urged those considering a second-screen strategy to focus on profitability, accessibility, and a streamlined design.

“At all turns, you should be asking yourself what is the minimal amount of functionality that should be [included],” said Inzerillo. “The reality is that simple, clean, functional app design is the hallmark of success.”

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