Viacom Joins Comcast, NBCU, And HBO As Social TV Startup Zeebox’s Latest Strategic Partner

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It seems like just last week that Zeebox launched its second screen app in the U.S., also announcing partnerships with Comcast, NBC Universal, and HBO to offer up exclusive content and tie-ins with their TV shows. Oh right, it WAS just last week. Those companies weren’t the only ones lined up to partner with Zeebox, as today the startup is announcing another strategic deal — this time with media conglomerate Viacom, which owns cable networks like Nick, MTV, and Comedy Central.

Zeebox is the newest of the new second screen/social TV/companion TV apps to makes its way into the Apple App Store and Google Play marketplace. As Jason Forbes, EVP and managing director of Zeebox USA, told me by phone, the five pillars of Zeebox are “discovery, social, information, interactivity, and commerce.”* It lets users discover new TV shows, see what their friends are watching, chat with other people using the app and on other social networks, get information about their favorite shows, interact with the app through polls and get exclusive content from content owners, and even buy stuff. (I did a pretty extensive review of the app at launch, so read that if you want to go through the whole laundry list of features again.)

Anyway, Viacom is making a strategic investment in the fledgling companion app company, just like Comcast and NBCU did. As part of the deal, Zeebox will get some quality exclusive content along the way, and probably some on-air TV promotion, which it hopes will educate users about the joys of the second screen and give them a reason to download and use the thing. In return, Viacom hopes to get a more engaged user base, and will also share in revenues from ads that run up against show pages on the app.

In our phone conversation, Forbes talked up engagement among fans of Viacom content in the U.K., where Zeebox launched late last year. According to him, users in the 12-18, 18-24, and 24-35 demos — those MOST VALUABLE TO ADVERTISERS — were also most likely to interact with Nick, MTV, and other Viacom content. In fact, he says engagement with Viacom shows in the U.K. was “overindexed” compared to other content on the app. That’s got Zeebox and Viacom both thinking maybe young US audiences will be just as interested in checking out companion content on the app.

More importantly, though, the Viacom deal gives Zeebox even more backing with which to attract viewers’ attention. After all, the whole point is to corral users into a single companion TV app, and that’s why getting multiple major media companies on board is so important.

The social TV landscape is pretty much a fragmented wasteland where, before Zeebox, different cable networks and even different shows on the same network all partnered with different apps, or created their own. That caused a situation where, if you were a fan of X Factor you had to download one companion app, but if you were a fan of Mob Wives, there was some whole other app to use. Zeebox wants to alleviate this fragmentation by becoming the one singular second-screen app worth downloading — but to do that, it’s gotta get support from the major media companies.

Viacom should help, but even with it and Comcast, NBCU, and HBO in the bag, Zeebox apparently isn’t done yet: The company says it plans to announce even more partners as the weeks and months roll on.

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* So here’s my thinking on Zeebox, and a lot of the second-screen apps out there: I’m not sure that users really want any of this stuff. Or all of it. Every social TV app founder will tell you about all the time that users spend in front of the TV with their laptops open or mobile device in hand, and they are absolutely convinced what those viewers really need is some all-in-one Swiss Army Knife tool that will provide the holy grail of companion entertainment.

Truth is, most people I know seem to be either checking their email while watching TV, or playing Angry Birds, or maybe Tweeting — basically doing everything but paying attention to the TV. It’s like, I understand the desire of programmers and marketers who want to re-engage those bored souls on their mobile phones while they’re not really watching American Idol and to serve them ads. But if users really wanted to chat about whatever show they aren’t really watching, they’re probably already doing so on Twitter or texting their friends.

Anyway, these are the thoughts of a jaded Gen Xer about an app that clearly wasn’t built for him. Maybe if I watched more TV, or if I had more life left in me, then I’d understand the desire to take a stupid poll while watching a stupid TV show or maybe buy some stuff that Glee was trying to sell me.

But frankly, these apps are just transparently made for marketers and programmers and not for actual consumers and I just think that most users are a bit smarter than that. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m sure Zeebox has some stat about how engaged their users and how they’re creating value for these strategic partners who are pouring money in and will be pimping the app during commercial breaks. I’m still skeptical.