Zeebox Partners With Comcast, NBC Universal, & HBO To Launch Companion TV App In The US

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Since being launched in the U.K. last year, second-screen TV app Zeebox has gradually been making its way to other geographies. About a month ago, I reported that Zeebox would be coming to the U.S. market with investment from Comcast. Today that’s finally happening. The companion TV app is now available to iOS and Android users in the U.S., and it’s launching with strategic investment not just from Comcast, but also from NBC Universal. In addition, the startup has partnered with HBO to provide customized experiences around its shows.

The startup was founded by former EMI executive Ernesto Schmitt and former BBC iPlayer CTO Anthony Rose in 2011, and has slowly launched its second screen companion TV app in various markets over the last several months. First it launched in the U.K., where it received a strategic investment from satellite TV provider BSkyB. Later, Zeebox formed a joint venture in Australia with broadcaster Network Ten for its launch Down Under.

Zeebox has built native companion apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android smartphones and tablets. It also has a web experience for those without smartphones. But really, the app is where it’s at.

Some things have changed since the last time I spoke with CTO Anthony Rose. I got a chance to test out Zeebox and to check out some of the features of the iPad and iPhone apps. The app is designed to help users discover new shows and strike up discussions about what’s on TV. On the discovery front, Zeebox has a number of ways to sort through shows that are on right now. There’s a “What’s Hot” tab, a tab for social activity, as well as a more traditional program guide for sorting through current and upcoming shows.

The What’s Hot tab is filled with featured and popular shows, interspersed with occasional star tweets or suggested shows. And the activity tab highlights shows that all Zeebox users are tuning into, as well as those being watched by a user’s friends. In all cases, though, the social aspect is front and center — even the guide, which has the same sort of layout as your typical cable box, also shows the buzz and Zeebox audience tuning in to any given show.

Click through to any program, and you’ll get detailed info about the cast and crew, as well as social commentary fed in through the Twitter firehose and news related to the show. With participating providers, users will be able to switch channels and set notifications for future viewing. They can also chat inline inside the app, or add their own comments through Twitter. Show pages also include live “zeetags,” which provide additional information about cast members and related subjects.

And that’s where Zeebox’s new U.S. partnerships come into play. Zeebox has taken strategic investment from both Comcast’s cable business, as well as NBC Universal. For Comcast customers, the Zeebox app will be available as a universal remote control, allowing users to quickly switch over to shows that they discover in the app. On the programming side, Zeebox will have enhanced pages for 307 shows across 28 different NBC Universal networks.

Zeebox has also partnered with HBO to enhance pages for that premium cable network, as well as its sister cable channel Cinemax. This isn’t the first companion app that HBO has worked with — in fact, at one time or another it’s tried out pretty much all the big ones, including GetGlue, Miso, and Viggle. HBO SVP of Digital Platforms Alison Moore said the partnership is just one more way that the network is trying to promote its content wherever its viewers are.

Comcast, NBCU, and HBO are the first partners to connect with Zeebox, but the startup says they won’t be the only networks to leverage its platform. To make it easier for others to do so, Zeebox will open its OpenBox API platform so other content owners can build more custom experiences in the app. That includes adding their own custom branding, exclusive content, and ability to monetize the second screen.

So what’s actually in it for partners? In addition to being able to control and customize their own show pages, they’ll also have new ways of interacting with fans and new ways to monetize their show content. That includes using Zeebox as a platform for running ads simultaneously on TV and on the companion app, and also the possibility of introducing e-commerce through the app as well. Since Zeebox is aware of what people are watching or interacting with, programmers will have an unprecedented ability to target ads and provide direct links to additional content and commerce.

The big question is, “Will it work?” I’ve seen a ton of second-screen apps over the years, and Zeebox seems as likely as any to win the social TV crown as any. That said, I’m pretty bearish on the idea that people want to have an app open with all sorts of distracting crap on it while they’re watching TV. But then, I don’t watch a ton of live TV, so what do I know about what the average user wants?

For what it’s worth, Zeebox’s Schmitt tells me that the app gets opened about 27 times each month per user in the U.K., with each session lasting somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes apiece. If it sees usage remotely close to that in the U.S., where people watch five-plus hours of TV a day, it could be onto something.

Anyway, check out this video of Zeebox CTO Anthony Rose walking through the app earlier this year. Or download the app for yourself.