By Chuck Ross
With the recent addition of Fox’s Los Angeles flagship station, KTTV, doing a deal with iPowow, interactive TV continues to make its mark.
iPowow, which bills itself as the leader in participation TV, seems to have found a formula that’s being continually embraced by programmers, advertisers and stations.
In a nutshell, iPowow enables questions to be asked of viewers, and enables viewers to respond, in real time, via the Internet.
KTTV recently started using iPowow in its sports programming and newscasts. Says Bob Cook, the former longtime chief of Fox’s syndication division who is now the VP and General Manager of Fox’s KTTV (and KCOP) in Los Angeles, “We are very pleased with iPowow so far. We’re going to try and incorporate it into as many of our news properties and our talk show in the morning because we think it really enhances the story.”
Adds Ruben Villaescusa, KTTV’s assistant news director, “One of the things news has always been reluctant to do is things that don’t feel organic. But iPowow has allowed us to have interactivity where the anchors can reach out to viewers and get a response in real time. Plus they can see the response change and grow right in front of them. So it’s a comfort level they haven’t been able to experience before.”
The news producers are liking iPowow as well, Villaescusa says: “When we use iPowow, the news producers are thinking, ‘Should we pursue a certain topic in the next section of the show based on the interactive response we are getting from viewers in real time?’ So it’s allowed for a whole new way of thinking on the spot.”
Stuart Evans, the station’s director of ad sales, agrees. “Viewers enjoy it. They now have a voice in what’s going on,” Evans says. “It can help move the topic in a certain direction as well. If you find that your audience is really excited about something, you are feeling their views on a certain topic, and that shapes conversation.”
He adds that this increased engagement by viewers also interests advertisers in the product. “It’ not just added value,” says Evans. “It’s revenue, and it’s something advertisers want to be associated with.”
Cook picks up on the idea of iPowow increasing viewer engagement: “A big part of our initiatives with our news is to measure viewer involvement and engagement through a service called Share Rocket. Well, nothing solicits engagement better than this kind of iPowow polling. So it’s right on the nose of what we are trying to do.”
We also spoke with iPowow CEO Gavin Douglas, who gave us a sense of how the company started: “The story begins 20 years ago, in 1996. I was working my second job in TV, in London. I worked for a very forward-thinking company … trying to make an interactive TV show. I was an assistant producer, running scripts and that kind of thing, and I was very taken with their concept. And their concept was this: They had 500 little plastic boxes. Imagine turning your iPhone upside down. And on the back of your iphone are four buttons, A, B, C and D. And out of the back of the plastic box was a telephone wire. And there are 500 of these in and around London, and they are all connected to a TV studio, as the British Oprah Winfrey, as you like, is chatting with her guests; live on-air, she can ask the audience at home all sorts of questions — what to ask next, and such. It was 1996, and ultimately there were technical problems and unfortunately these interactive elements didn’t work.”
Douglas then worked on “Top Gear” at the BBC, and many other places. “I worked on about 35 TV shows in 14 years,” he says. “Produced, directed, edited. I did everything in making television. And all during that time what I could not get out of my head was what we had done in 1996 with interactive TV. I always wanted to be able to ask an audience a question in real time, as they were watching a show, and have their answer affect the outcome of the show.”
In 2010 Douglas, working with some engineers, finally figured out the technical aspects of such a device. “So we raised $3 million and I moved to California, where I’ve lived ever since, and contacted ESPN, who said yes, they were interested in the technology, and they put us on ‘SportsCenter’ and then ‘Friday Night Fights’ and ‘Mike and Mike.’”
Since then Douglas and iPowow haven’t looked back: Fox Sports, “Teen Wolf,” “Modern Family,” the list goes on. Most recently, CNN used them to poll its audience about various questions they have been asked about the presidential election.
“It’s all about TV first,” says Douglas. “It has to be on TV, it has to be in the studio, and it has to be affecting what’s on air, because otherwise it’s an app that’s trying to change TV, and those don’t work.”