The London firm Zeebox is poised to announce a deal to launch its well-regarded British television product, known as augmented television, in the U.S., giving users a rich, complex "second-screen" technology to enhance their TV viewing.
Having met with potential American partners, Zeebox is now working with NBC, said several people with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity because of the confidentiality of a pending announcement.
Zeebox's free Apple iPad application, expected to be launched soon in the U.S., brings together online conversations about individual shows, delivers information relevant to the episode the viewer is watching on TV, and provides an opportunity to buy products advertised during commercials (or depicted within the program), according to information on the company's website.
Unlike other applications for tablets, Zeebox's application works for the gamut of TV programs delivered into the home — not just for individual shows.
The technology could become a standard in what is known as "second screen" applications for laptops, smartphones and tablet computers. Television networks have been grappling with the intrusion of these small screens, which compete with the TV for viewers' attention. One recent Nielsen study found that 86% of tablet owners and 84% of smartphone users said they check these screens while watching TV.
Viewers are using their portable devices in ways that are disconnected from their TV experience, according to a global survey of 3,000 people commissioned by Ovum Research, a firm specializing in telecommunications and media. Ovum found that most of those who responded to the survey said they're browsing the Web, visiting their favorite sites or online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Fewer than half, roughly 40%, are searching for information related to the program that they're watching.
"The bottom line here is there is an opportunity for these second-screen applications to address some of those audience behaviors," said Adrian Drury, head of Ovum's integrated media team. "They're looking for information about editorial content, to enter into discussions around what's going on the TV screen, and they want more information about the ads on the screen. But here's the kicker: the level of engagement that the audience has with those kinds of behaviors is much, much lower."
Nonetheless, a number of companies — including GetGlue, ConnecTV and Yahoo's IntoNow — have developed technology seeking to lure back viewers who have disappeared into their tiny screens.
Zeebox declined to comment Wednesday, and NBC did not respond to requests seeking comment.
But those who have seen demonstrations of Zeebox's technology, which is available to British Sky Broadcasting subscribers in Britain and was developed by engineers who come with a BBC pedigree, describe the application as an elegant blending of interactive features and social integration.
Zeebox allows people to log in to Facebook or Twitter without ever leaving the app. Users can see what their friends are watching on TV — and potentially sit together on a virtual couch, viewing the same show and exchanging thoughts about what unfolds on TV.
Another feature delivers information that's relevant to an episode as it airs on TV. A viewer who watched Tom Cruise's interview on the BBC car show "Top Gear" would have been able to access biographical information about the Hollywood star or click on links to watch his movies online — one example cited by Zeebox co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Anthony Rose in an explanatory video on the company's website.
One e-commerce element in the Zeebox application allows consumers to use their mobile device to buy products seen in commercials, or even brands that appear on the screen.
"There's a long journey between you seeing something on TV and then actually having an opportunity to buy it," Zeebox co-founder and Chief Executive Ernesto Schmitt said in the promotional Web video. "On Zeebox, whatever you see on television … you can immediately interact with that via the second screen."
Not everyone in the entertainment industry is bowled over by Zeebox.
Some executives don't see the need for a ubiquitous second-screen app for all TV programming. Although ancillary digital content works well with reality competition shows, in which the viewer uses a phone or tablet to vote on the outcome, it might detract from more complex scripted dramas or comedies, in which the viewer is focused on the story.
Others in the industry are wary of start-ups eager to insert their technology into a direct relationship between a television network and its users on these digital platforms.