While Zeebox has been making a big noise in the UK, across the Atlantic, start-up company Umami is quietly trying to establish itself as the TV companion app of choice. Andrew McDonald reports.
Social interaction and two-screen extensions have now been the buzzwords of the TV industry for the past couple of years, but Scott Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of New York-based Umami, believes there is still some way to go before the US market starts to think in a joined-up way.
“Consumers have a strong desire – latent and expressed – to have a deeper relationship with their shows and most of the second-screen behaviour that’s happening today is still very organic,” says Rosenberg.
“It’s people hitting Google, Twitter and Facebook, talking about or searching for information about their shows. Whenever you see that kind of behaviour en masse with people using tools we frankly feel are pretty clumsy, like Twitter.com, it illustrates an opportunity in bright, blinking lights.”
Umami’s founder is a veteran of the technology and TV spaces. Starting as a video processing and interactive TV architect at Intel in the 1990s, Rosenberg has since worked on early DVR ad deployments at technology firm Replay TV and as VP of advanced advertising at Gemstar-TV Guide, now owned by Rovi.
He says his aim for Umami – a Japanese term for the fifth taste that loosely translates to ‘savoury’ or ‘enhanced’ – is simple: “Our strategy is to provide tools to people who own content, which may be relevant to a viewer as they’re watching a TV show but who might not have the platform.”
The firm’s November-launched iPad app – its first consumer product – syncs with live and time-shifted TV using audio fingerprinting technology. Much like Zeebox in the UK, the app offers content around shows, such as cast biographies, information and photos, and a filtered Twitter stream. It also gives one-click access to official show pages, fan sites and social networks like Facebook. Meanwhile, for the broadcaster, it includes a “whole set of publishing tools, measurement tools and ad management tools on top of that,” Rosenberg explains.
“Rather than run our own ad sales team and sell against or on top of the broadcasters, our goal is to equip them with a second-screen platform that they can put great content into, more deeply engage the viewer and then ultimately approach their traditional ad clients and say ‘Buy not just a 30-second spot from me, but also the second-screen interactive extension that goes with it.’”
Umami, which raised US$1.65m in seed funding last year from venture capital firms New Enterprise Associates and Battery Ventures, has already partnered with National Geographic to offer branded experiences around selected shows.
Rosenberg says the firm is “always” open to taking new funding to grow the business, and its goal for the year ahead is to bring on more content providers and broadcasters. But this will be no simple task, and not just because of competition in the marketplace or broadcasters’ willingness, in many cases, to build their own apps in-house.
“In contrast to a year ago, I don’t meet many networks today who feel like they don’t need to be doing something on the second screen. What’s different across the board is the level of urgency, and of course, in the UK there’s folks like Sky taking a position with Zeebox. So you’ve got operators and distributors who are another player in the ecosystem,” says Rosenberg
With the market still at an early stage, he doesn’t believe there will be a “winner-takes-all” second-screen model. But he adds that the space already seems to be moving on from the first wave of TV check-in services like Miso and Yahoo!-owned IntoNow.
“A year and a half ago, there was a big spate of check-in play – Foursquare meets TV. GetGlue is one of the more successful, although I would say successful with a small ‘s.’ It’s still early days for them. Most of the other check-in plays have gone away or pivoted, because it’s not a deep enough rationale to get people to do it regularly.”
Yet in spite of this, he says the market is a “big enough eco-system” for independent companion services and branded apps from content owners and broadcasters to co-exist. It’s down to Umami to sweeten up the broadcasters and try to avoid leaving a bitter taste.