I was excited to try the first edition of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy Sync iPad app. I missed trying the sync app for ABC’s My Generation last fall because the show was canceled almost faster than the app could finish downloading. Plus the show previews did nothing for me. So just for fun, here is my own in-depth analysis and review of the application. This covers a lot of information – probably more than any other so far for this app. All opinions are my own. All images/names are owned by their respective copyright holders.
My set-up: I recorded Grey’s Anatomy at home on a TiVo HD upstairs and transferred it to another TiVo HD downstairs a few minutes after the show. The iPad was using WiFi from an N-speed router located beneath our TV about 8 feet away from our sofa. The router is connected through a switch to another router upstairs which in turn connects to our Charter cable modem.
Installing the Grey’s Anatomy Sync iPad App
My wife installed the app a couple of hours before the Grey’s Anatomy episode on Thursday, 2/3/2011. She searched the App store and it came up in the results, but then gave her some message about it being unavailable and wouldn’t let her download it. So then she went to ABC’s Web site and followed a link directly to the app’s page in Apple’s store where she was able to download and install it.
Starting the App
I tried running the app a few minutes before the show’s start time. It started okay, but when I tried to go into the video and photo galleries I couldn’t play videos or view the photos. Instead, I got an error message that said the network wasn’t available or something. I could also tell from the video and photo interface that this content had to be downloaded on the fly from the Internet and was not bundled with the app. Sometimes our home network gets a bit flaky, so I switched over to Safari to see if I could access other Web content. I could surf Web sites, so it appeared the Internet connection was fine. I restarted the Grey’s Anatomy app and was then able to access the videos and photos without problems.
Preparing to Watch the Show
I watched the episode on my TiVo HD a few minutes after it finished airing. I had to wait until it finished because I recorded it in one room to view in another and TiVo HD won’t let you start transferring a program while it is still being recorded. I did not watch Grey’s Anatomy live because I was busy with household chores and my wife had the downstairs TiVo busy watching the previous night’s episode of ABC’s Off the Map (a show also from the producers of Grey’s Anatomy).
The Sync Experience
I started playing the show on TV and clicked on the sync button in the app. As promised in the FAQs, it synchronized within 15 seconds by listening to the Nielsen Media-Sync audio watermarks, which are special cues inaudible to mere humans in the audio channel. Those cues provide information on what show is playing and where you are in watching the program. When I used fast-forward or rewind on TiVo the app re-synchronized within 10-15 seconds. Did I worry about the app listening to every sound in my living room? No. For one thing, we weren’t talking during the program, we were watching it. Watching Grey’s Anatomy is not like watching a football game where you yell at the screen. The app’s FAQs say Nielsen Media-Sync only listens to certain frequencies. Do I think the concept will still bother some consumers? Yes. Will it show up someday as a movie plot device for hackers or government spies? Certainly. But I don’t worry about it eavesdropping on me. The same thing could theoretically have happened for years with any device at home that has a microphone (your phones, your computers, etc.). So what happens when you’re watching a synchronized show? It’s much like VH1′s Pop-Up Videos from the ’90s, except it’s happening on the iPad instead of the TV screen. Most of the information is just static text and pictures — trivia, production notes, etc. However, there are also some interactive elements including quizzes, polls and video. New modules in the feed appear at the top, forcing older modules down in the screen until they disappear below the horizontal scroll point.
Types of Synchronized Modules
Here are the types of modules and my count of the times each was used in the app’s synchronized content feed.
- Music of Grey’s Anatomy: 5 (including a module at the end of the show with iTunes links to the four songs from the episode)
- Trivia info: 24, including…
- Poll: 4 (plus 4 results modules, of course)
- Trivia quiz for Grey’s Anatomy: 1
- Social Media: 5, including…
- Grey’s Anatomy: Check-In on Facebook or Twitter: 2
- Comment on Facebook: 3
Note that the horizontal and vertical versions of the Facebook publish box look different in this app. The vertical version is narrower, did not show my Facebook profile picture and seemed to be missing any left margin. Kudos for getting “via Grey’s Anatomy’s Sync” in there to identify the source of comments from this app.
- Grey’s Anatomy: Check-In on Facebook or Twitter: 2
- Lexus: 12 (often integrated with show content modules), including…
- Lexus ad banner: 7
- Lexus ad banner/video combo: 2
- Lexus ad banner/trivia question combo: 5
- ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy Sync – Thanks for watching module 1
The app and this episode’s synchronized content feed appeared exclusively sponsored by Lexus. The automaker has a persistent logo in the bottom right corner. Lexus also had a big presence within the synchronized content feed. Lexus is incorporated through:
- Graphic ads within content modules
- Graphic ads combined with Lexus videos
- Graphic ads combined with quizzes about Lexus. The Lexus quizzes used the same look and feel as the quizzes for the Grey’s Anatomy episode
The appearance of the Lexus ads was often synchronized with the start of a TV commercial break, but also appeared during the show content. However, there were no Lexus commercials on-air. Instead, I saw a spot for a different car in every TV commercial pod: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, Hyundai, Ford Fusion Hybrid and Nissan Quest. So you have a sync app offering a two-screen viewing experience with an exclusive sponsor, but of course the TV show has many sponsors. Having a different sponsor for an online experience doesn’t seem like a big deal if you’re watching later on a different platform (e.g. ABC’s Web site, Hulu), but it did feel a bit disjointed when they were happening simultaneously. As a viewer, I had two Grey’s Anatomy advertisers competing for my time. Where did I spend my time? Looking at the TV while fast-forwarding TiVo through the break (I had to buzz through the episode later to verify which automakers were in the commercial pods). But I did look at the Lexus ads after the commercial break while checking for new synchronized content in the synchronized content feed. Some of the Lexus ad integrations in the synchronized feed seemed to have so many elements I hardly knew where to begin. When it asked a Lexus trivia question, I didn’t know where I was supposed to be able to get the answer. Was it mentioned on-air in a commercial? Was it somewhere in the app? How was I supposed to know Lexus used Yamaha to tune the sound of an engine? Clicking the links in the Lexus modules opened up an embedded browser window pulling content from http://touch.lexus.com, the Lexus iPad-friendly site. Hopefully, Lexus and the Grey’s Anatomy app team can measure the traffic from this app specifically. There wasn’t anything to indicate any obvious tracking to me on the part of Lexus in the couple of URLs I checked. Example 1: http://touch.lexus.com/_includes/video.jsp?videoURL=http://a230.g.akamai.net/7/230/2320/v001/toyota.download.akamai.com/2320/lexus/media/brand/Engine_Exam_Lexus_Site_high_FINAL.mp4&videoTitle=WHY%20CAT%20SCAN%20AN%20ENGINE?&backURL=/TheHardWay/index.jsp
Example 2: http://touch.lexus.com/dealer_results.jsp
Even if Lexus could rely on a referral code to know a user came from the Grey’s Anatomy app, the app would need analytics built-in to track that someone clicked on items within the embedded browser. I’ll assume the Grey’s Anatomy team is tracking when someone clicks on the links within the Lexus modules.
I also noticed an apparent iPad mobile Safari quirk in one of the touch.lexus.com pages viewed in the embedded browser. The page had a copyright at the bottom -”2006-2011″ – and Safari interpreted that as a possible phone number and automatically made it a hyperlink. Tapping it brought up a pop-op option to create a contact or add to an existing one. This didn’t make any sense for a copyright, of course.
The frequency of updates during the episode was pretty good. There was enough content to keep it interesting. The content was well-written with no obvious errors. Image quality was good. I most enjoyed the polls, the production notes , the identification of actors playing new characters (answering the “where do I know that person?” question) and the information on what song was playing at the moment. I loved that the Media-Sync technology worked even when played back from a DVR. Bonus: I transferred the episode from my TiVo HD to a PC laptop using TiVo Desktop Plus software, then converted to an iPod-compatible video, added to iTunes on an iMac, and copied it to my iPhone 4. When I played the episode and held my phone up to my iPad with the Grey’s Anatomy app running, the app still recognized the episode and displayed the synchronized stream of information. It’s nice that the Media-Sync audio watermarks survived through two format conversions.
Thoughts on Other Features
Two screens can be a lot to watch: The iPad sometimes distracted me from the show. I noticed sometimes I was missing key dialog in the show because I was reading the app’s feed or interacting with a quiz or poll. The quizzes were some of the more distracting elements. I found I couldn’t pay attention to the show well while trying to read the question, analyze the answers and make a selection before running out of time (even though I successfully remembered Meredith’s mom died in season 3). I was concentrating on the app instead of the show, so I had to rewind to catch what I missed in the show. What do people without a TiVo or DVR do? I often use an iPhone, iPad or laptop while watching TV for a show that isn’t must-see for me, but it’s usually to read news — something my eyes can put on pause at any time so I can concentrate on the show. But I couldn’t pause the sync’d app in the same way. Perhaps synchronized content feeds will make reruns more interactive and be less distracting if you’ve already seen the episode. That would also follow the logic that “pop-up” episodes on TV always happened during re-runs and not the initial airing. However, I never watch re-runs by appointment since I set my TiVo to only record the first run of favorite shows.
Trivia is for amusement purposes only: If I selected a wrong answer in a trivia question, it displayed an X on the item. I could then select a correct answer and got a check. There didn’t seem to be any penalty or reward for being wrong or correct, such as a varying number of points based on how early you answer (such as Buzztime uses on interactive two-screen trivia games in restaurants).
Audio cues: The iPad plays a sound when new material appears in the app’s synchronized feed. However, I almost always have the iPad speaker muted to keep from bothering other people in the living room. I do see the value in having a tone so you don’t have to look at the iPad so often checking for new material while also trying to watch TV. The utility of the tone wasn’t worth the interruption for me.
Caring about sharing: My wife and I usually watch Grey’s Anatomy together. The iPad is more of a single-user experience and it’s hard for us to comfortably share it. This means in our single-iPad household that only one of us can enjoy the two-screen experience while the other is left wondering what’s happening on the iPad. (Maybe this just means we need another iPad!)
Sync not always in sync: The synchronization of the iPad stream seemed a little off from the TV show sometimes. For example, a note about a scene wouldn’t appear sometimes until right after the scene, so the note wouldn’t be immediately clear. I couldn’t be sure at first whether it was talking about the scene currently on the screen or the one that just finished. Thinking about this was distracting from the show. I can’t tell whether it was done that way on purpose or whether the pop-ups seemed late due to iPad processing power, Internet network latency or something with the Nielsen Media-Sync technology.
Easy to leave, tough to come back: I didn’t like that everytime I exited the app and returned I had to restart the app from scratch, requiring it to then re-sync and reload all the content so far in the show. The service seemed a bit slow to reload the polls even though I was watching at a time that the show might have only been airing in the mountain time zone. Why would I leave the app?
- If I want to check my e-mail
- If I want to check Twitter or Facebook
- If I want to look up more info on one of the trivia items included in the synchronized feed
- If I follow the links in the synchronized feed for music that take me to iTunes.
My problem with the iTunes links was I realized a half-second too late that it was going to take me out of the app. Here is the use case:
- Four links for songs from this episode were presented.
- Clicking any one will take you to iTunes to the album/song to purchase it.
- If you want to go back to the other music links in the app, you can’t get to them without re-syncing. How would you do that if the show were over and had not recorded it? I had to rewind the show in my TiVo a few minutes so the app could resync.
I would want to be able to revisit the entire synchronized feed to have the option to follow all links, re-read content and share items via social media .
The scrolls have scrolls: Scrolling was sometimes a bit funky. I would swipe upward in the center area, but it would turn out I was swiping within a scrolling module rather than swiping the the whole column. I had to find another place to swipe to scroll.
Kind of weird sliding polls: The scolls using a slider bar that let you choose between two answers. You don’t have to slide it all the way, meaning you could answer 75% one way and 25% the other way. I wonder why they didn’t choose to present them as Boolean options. I bet most people went all the way one direction or another (it would be interesting to see the analytics on that).
Separating fact from fiction: Sometimes the modules used character names and other times they used actor names (and just their first names). You had to really know the show well to be able to understand what the trivia text meant.
Hashtag opportunity: The app’s overall Share on Twitter function included a hashtag, but they missed the opportunity to include a hashtag on in-show Twitter posts. This would be a handy way to check on Twitter for use and maybe result in a top trending topic, leading to exposure for non-followers who would wonder why Grey’s Anatomy was suddenly so hot in the Twitterverse.
Let me back in: Make all of the feed’s information available after the show airs without re-syncing so I can explore it at my leisure. This would present some challenges, however. Some trivia notes wouldn’t make sense as they were written (e.g. reference to “this scene” without a picture from the scene), so they would need to be produced differently to still work when not watching the show.
Fast switching: Add fast-switching ability so I can still jump over to other apps and return immediately to where I was in the Grey’s Anatomy app without waiting to resync.
Episode purchases: Add ability to purchase the episodes within the app from iTunes and then watch it while enjoying the interactive experience with the full synchronized content feed. Of course, the screen would need some free real estate to make room for a video player. (Instead of a 2-screen experience, would that make it a 2 half-screen experience?)
Are those staging links?: I noticed the links to photos and videos in an embedded browser showed the content was being served from staging links for gooddogdesign.com, such as these two: http://ga.staging.gooddogdesign.com/photos/669271-start-me-up/4 http://ga.staging.gooddogdesign.com/videos/abc-gooddog-3502423 Usually when I see staging links it means a) a product had short, tight deadlines and/or b) someone missed updating the links to use a production server somewhere between the multiple parties working on a product. Of course, it could mean nothing and a subdomain with “staging” in the name might have been done on purpose. (In case you didn’t know, you can get the URL of a link in mobile Safari and embedded browsers on an iPad by holding your finger on it for about a second. You can then copy it to the clipboard or open the link in a new browser window.)
I’ve seen problems before with staging links making it to production because QA testers might see links work when testing internally, but then the links are broken for outsiders after launch. Also, the staging server might not have the same capacity or content as a production server. Staging servers might also cause analytics data to be incomplete or different than on the production server. However, there were no problems with this from my end as a user.
Questions to Consider
- Who owns the Grey’s Anatomy Sync app? ABC? ABC Studios? Disney? Shondaland? The Mark Gordon Company? The question of ownership for sync apps will need to be as clear as for the program itself in order to have a lifespan beyond the initial on-air run. These apps will have value. There could be people using this episode’s synchronized content feed 50 years from now.
- Will this sync app work with other distribution outlets? I’m wondering if I’ll be able to use the sync experience when I buy or rent the episode via digital download. Will it work with DVD/Blu-ray? What about when this episode runs in syndication?
- How is success being measured? It can be hard in these early days of sync apps to know what response to expect, but I wonder whether any financial models were used to determine how many downloads it would take to break even, for example, or factored in the promotional benefit. Setting Key Performance Indicators is a good way to test your estimating process and to compare with results afterward.
- What’s the server situation? It takes some back-end processing for processing polls. Who hosts that and how long is the contract? Is it a month-to-month deal or an annual deal? Was the app set up so the back-end server location could be easily changed if necessary, such as to move from an outside vendor to an internal server?
- Are iTunes purchases launched from the app tracked? It would be good to know how many users made purchases by following the iTunes links in the synchronized content feed at the end of the show.
- Who’s tracking what? How much data does Nielsen receive via their Media-Sync platform, if any? Which parties get analytics for this app?
- How much production time did it take? I know getting the kind of content used in the synchronized feed in time can be challenging and time-consuming. How much production time did it take to gather the information and assets for this episode’s feed? Were those items were used in any other media and easily leveraged for this app? For example, maybe these are items produced for the DVD extras anyway.
- ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy iPad Sync app page
- Media-Sync web site
- Good Dog Design: Brief post by Henry Gooden about their involvement in developing the user interface and content mini-site.
- Digimarc blog: Post with a video demo of Media-Sync technology. It says Media-Sync “is a joint venture between The Nielsen Company and Digimarc Corporation.”
- Digimarc press release
- Nielsen blog: Post by Sid Gorham about Media-Sync when the “My Generation” app launched last fall
- Gracenote blog: Gooden says Gravity Mobile, a Gracenote company, developed the final app. This blog discusses topics such as their audio fingerprinting technology.
Thanks for reading. I hope this has been useful. Please add a comment if you have thoughts or information to share.