My Backstage Pass Experience at the Oscars for 99 cents

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Loading ScreenThe ABC Oscar Backstage Pass was an ambitious effort and interesting display of a convergent, universal app for iPhone and iPad.

The app had five phases:

  • Pre-arrival video playlists leading up to the live coverage
  • Live red carpet camera coverage
  • Live cameras in the Kodak Theatre during the award ceremony
  • Live cameras in the post-ceremony Governor’s Ball
  • Post-show video playlists with edited highlights

Pre-arrival

I downloaded the Oscar Backstage Pass app several days before the Oscars on both my iPhone 4 and iPad.  I noticed it already had good reviews in the iTunes store even if you don’t count the first five posted under names matching Disney/ABC staff. (The next two reviews could have been from Disney staff if “Hopacious” and “Spanky2U” were Snow White’s lost eighth and ninth dwarves.)

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Countdown

Academy Awards countdown on the iPhone app

I tried the iPhone experience first and was greeted with a countdown to the show’s start time and playlists to watch videos about Oscar fashions, nominations and the like.  There was also a section with FAQs, terms, privacy policy and a feedback form.  I’ve spent my recent time looking at convergent apps on the iPad, so the iPhone screen felt tiny.  It was hard to tap buttons in the FAQ section because they were so small, but I could tell the size would be fine when increased proportionally to the larger iPad screen.  (For more on the pain of using the Web on mobile phones, see the great recent post by Jakob Nielsen, “Mobile Content Is Twice as Difficult.”)

 

When starting a video, the attractive, animated “loading” bar stayed on the screen about a second too long and covered up the start of the video. The scrub bar did not work for me.  If I dragged the timeline cursor around, it would move with no effect on playback.  The time remaining counter would then just stop counting.  Video quality was good with no buffering issues.

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Fine Print

Buttons in the iPhone app info area were so close and small they were hard to tap.

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass iPad Info Area

The iPad's larger screen made it easier to navigate the info area.

The iPhone only worked in landscape mode, so I was glad to see the iPad app worked in both landscape and portrait mode since I usually use the latter.  The larger screen made the interface easier to use and more enjoyable even though the content was the same as on the iPhone.

It felt like there was not much to see in the app before the Oscars, but I wasn’t too disappointed since the live cams were the real sell.  I can find content about Oscar fashion and nominees anywhere for free, but the exclusive cameras were the unique selling proposition here.

Branding in the app was really all about Oscar and not ABC, although ABC did have a persistent logo in the footer.  Using proxy software to monitor traffic between my devices and the Internet, I saw the apps make a server request to determine your local ABC affiliate station.  I did not notice the app doing anything with that information, so it makes me wonder if it was just for analytics, for a future feature in other ABC apps, or whether the camera feeds were tape-delayed for other time zones to match with TV coverage. The server came back with the wrong affiliate station in my case and chose one in the next DMA up the road from ours.  Apparently, my internet connection from Charter appears to the outside world as coming from 100 miles away in Kingsport, TN rather than Knoxville.

Roll out the red carpet

The first cams went live at 6:30 p.m. EST in the red carpet arrival area.  Note that this is 30 minutes before ABC’s TV coverage started and two hours before the ceremony.  This was the first glimpse of the full game plan.

I started with the iPhone app using 3G on AT&T because my wife and I were having a bite at Chili’s.  We shared the screen and some nachos.  The app had two ways to navigate cameras: map and grid.

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass iPhone Map View

Map view on the iPhone

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass iPhone Grid View

Grid view on the iPhone

The map was a great way to get the lay of the land. It showed where the cameras were placed and which way they were generally pointed.  It might have been nice to show which way celebrity traffic was flowing so you could get your bearings and follow a star from arrival to entering the building, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out after a bit.

Each camera on the map had a play button as an icon and shading around it to indicate where the camera would point.  The map background and information is loaded via XML that tells the app where the camera icon should appear on screen and which way the camera is meant to point.   I quickly found the direction indicator was only a guide because the cameras were manned by operators who turned them all different directions to get the best shot.  So while the map showed the Fan Cam would be pointing at fans in the bleachers, the camera was actually pointing at stars on the red carpet, which is what I would rather view anyway.  Some “cameras” in the app were more like channels because someone was actually switching between multiple cameras.

I had my 11-year-old son use the app while we drove home.  He said the video quality was good except when we passed through the known 3G dead spot on a highway near home.  He declared Backstage Pass better than the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards app he tried during their ceremony.

When I got home, I switched out to the iPad using wi-fi.  I was holding the iPad horizontally this time and the app went straight into video.   I started tapping the screen to try to get to the map and grid view I saw in the iPhone version, but that only made the video zoom in and out like you can do with other videos on the iPad.  It turns out you can watch full-screen video in landscape mode, but you have to turn the iPad back to portrait to access the rest of the app’s interface.  If a user happened to start in landscape mode, they might not know there were other features to access.  It appears from the comments in iTunes that this happened to some people. Maybe the portrait-oriented image of an Oscar statuette on the load screen mitigates that. The full-screen landscape view was also missing a basic volume control, requiring use of the switch on the iPad body.

The image in landscape mode full-screen view was not as sharp as the half-screen portrait view.  It looked like the video was really sized for the half-screen view and was just being stretched for the full-screen view, resulting in some fuzziness.  The sharpest picture for me all night was on the iPhone 4′s retina display.  The video looked good on both platforms, but it just looked crisper on the iPhone.

Once I figured out to turn the iPad vertically, I could start navigating and playing director for the show.  But should I use the map or grid to navigate? I started with the map and ignored the grid at first since it just looked like a video player carousel.  The map clearly indicates which camera you are viewing.

Then I noticed the grid view actually updated each camera’s thumbnail.  It turns out the app grabs an updated thumbnail for each camera in the grid about every 10 seconds.  Each thumbnail is only about 10K, so it wasn’t enough to interfere with the video stream on wi-fi for me.  This made the grid mode the next best thing to a true mosaic view, which would show individual streams from each camera on the screen at once and let the audio follow video as you select them.  This pseudo-mosaic view became my favorite view of the evening because I could monitor multiple cameras and use the IPad like my own control room, switching to where the action was.  Not all of the grid thumbnails fit on the screen at once during the red carpet arrivals and award ceremony, so monitoring the cameras required scrolling back and forth in the app.

The grid view also makes it clear which camera you are viewing with a green light under its thumbnail and a red “active” banner across that camera’s thumbnail. I do wonder why both were used instead of one or the other.  Maybe someone thought the green light was too subtle and a more obvious banner was needed.

The weird thing about the grid view was the thumbnails ran about 30 seconds ahead of the actual video streams.  I would see a camera’s thumbnail switch to show a star appearing, but I would switch to that camera only to see an empty screen.  About 30 seconds later, the star would appear in the video as “foreshadowed” by the thumbnail.  In some ways, that was useful so I could switch to a camera without missing anything.  But it was also weird until I figured it out and I wonder whether casual viewers would invest that much thought in it.

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass iPad Audience CamDuring the award ceremony, the stream delay was also an issue when using the two cameras in the theater. Those cameras were only enabled during commercial breaks. However, the delay between the TV broadcast and the app meant the theater cams would not start until 30 seconds after the show went to break and then run about 30 seconds over after the broadcast returned from break. This meant I missed some of the TV broadcast because I was listening to the wild sound from the theater, trying to hear what host Anne Hathaway or the announcer was telling the attendees.  I’m not sure what to think about only making those cameras available during the breaks.  If I can watch all the other cameras during the show broadcast and one of those is even a produced feed with commentary, why can’t I watch the other two with the broadcast program sound?  I have trouble seeing people using those cameras as a substitute for the broadcast. Enabling them only during breaks meant I was watching them instead of the commercials. Big live events are your best shot to keep people from time-shifting by even a little bit, so there seems to be an unresolved conflict.  I like to think about what happens if an app like this took off and everyone in the country used it.  If everyone watched the app’s live stream instead of broadcast commercials, you would need to find a way to incorporate a sponsor message in real time so you would not interrupt the live stream.  That might include framing the screen in the app, ad overlays, or incorporating a sponsor into the live event.  I don’t think we need models carrying a sponsor’s logo on stage during the breaks like between boxing rounds, but there are obviously plenty of revenue opportunities in this space if the two-screen audience grows.

Video streams locked in as quickly as you could reasonably expect. After tapping a camera icon, the video would start playing a low-res pixilated version within three to five seconds and then lock in on a clear high-res stream within 5 seconds after that.  A “loading” message appears when you switch cameras so you know it is working.  I only had minor buffering issues all evening and those tended to occur when switching cameras. For example, the video stream would sometimes flash a couple of frames I had viewed earlier in the stream as if they were cached on the iPad and then play the live stream.

ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Winners Photo Cam Flash Barrage

Typical view when the camera flashes went crazy.

It was almost impossible to get a clear stream of the winners having their pictures taken by the press and at least one user commented on this in the iTunes app reviews. The number of flash bulbs changing the scene at once must have driven the encoder crazy.  Encoded, compressed and streamed video was probably never meant to show an attack of strobe lights.

I would have liked a clearer transition from one phase to the next during the evening. The countdown to the live red carpet phase was great. When it approached time to switch from award show to the Governor’s Ball, the Kodak Theatre cameras started shutting down or running the feed from other cams. Then the app suddenly switched and I couldn’t see what was happening in the theater backstage or press tent area anymore.

I had some technical problems at the transition to the ball and my best guess is something happened with the networking in my house since resetting my router fixed it.  The error message I received in the app was somewhat helpful, but didn’t tell me that it just couldn’t connect to the Web: “We are unable to play back video from this camera. Please try again in a few minutes.  Error code: 300-1.”

Battery life on the iPad was great. I went from 100% to 47% with full-time use of streaming video for about 4 hours.  It’s a good thing I started with a full charge.

I was unable to output the iPhone video to a TV. I have an Apple cable with analog RCA video/audio output jacks I use for watching Netflix. My iPhone tried and the screen would even say for a second that it was outputting the video to the TV, but only audio came through and the app would switch back to displaying video on the iPhone.  I wonder if the new Apple HDMI output connector announced 3/2/11 will really support complete mirroring for all apps or whether developers will be able to restrict it.

So what did I see and hear all night?

  • Lots of feet. During the pre-show arrivals, most of the cameras really were live and unedited. I saw a lot of celebrity feet as the cameras focused on their shoes before making a steady pan up their perfect fashions and hair.  The audio usually consisted of wild sound like crowd noise at a football game in which you hear lots of people talking but few words are distinguishable.
    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Feet

    Fashionable feet featured on the red carpet

  • Hosts and interviewers: The red carpet and award ceremony offered feeds with hosts commenting and interviewing stars.  These were fully produced feeds with graphics and would often take the best picture from the other cameras while the hosts gave voiceover commentary.

    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Sandra Bullock Interview

    Sandra Bullock on the live Announcer Cam

  • Attendees being told to not clap when returning from break for the in memoriam segment
  • People I mostly didn’t recognize thanking people I don’t know backstage.  The Thank You cam allows winners to speak as long as they want right after exiting the stage. That was okay, but it made me realize how many winners are really behind-the-scenes people that viewers at home probably don’t really care about hearing.  I wanted to see stars and was very disappointed to not see Natalie Portman or Christian Bale show up at the cam right after winning (unless I missed them). But the camera was good for other backstage moments such as seeing all the winners walk by with Oscars in hand for the closing segment.
    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Thank You Cam
  • Seat fillers at work.  Since I have yet to be invited to the Oscars, I have never witnessed the phenomenon that is the lowly seat filler. I enjoyed watching them play musical chairs during commercial breaks as they grabbed seats and stuffed their credential badge away so they could look like real stars.
  • A collective sigh of relief as the show entered the last hour.  It was fun to see the visible change in everyone on the backstage cameras as the show headed home.  Their bodies relaxed, they grabbed a seat wherever they could, and the designer high heels came off.  That’s when it got real, even for the winners hanging out in the hallway before heading to the press room.

    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass No Shoes

    You know it is almost over when the shoes come off.

    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Grab a Seat

    When it gets late, grab a seat wherever you can.

    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Toast

    A private celebratory toast among winners after walking off stage.

  • The Oscar engraving station at the Governor’s Ball where winners upgraded placeholder labels on their statuettes for the real thing

    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Engraving Station

    Swapping out the placeholder plaque for the real thing.

  • Someone repeatedly chewing her fingernails backstage. I guess the Oscar race was a real nail-biter.  I’m not going to post that screenshot, but maybe I can sell it to a fetish site that collects pictures of women in evening gowns biting nails. No, I’m afraid to even Google that.
  • Genuinely tender and unexpected moments.  There was a pregnant Natalie Portman backstage after winning the best actress Oscar, giving her fiancé  Benjamin Millepied a sweet kiss that looked like it was really just between them.  They appeared quite in love and could have been any couple in the country celebrating a regional Emmy or sales person of the year award.

    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied kiss

    Natalie Portman gets a kiss from Benjamin Millepied before taking a picture with her Best Actress Oscar

    Another tender moment was when best supporting actress winner Melissa Leo traced the engraved letters on her Oscar trophy with her fingers like she couldn’t believe her name was really on it.  You saw a lifetime of hopes and dreams culminating live right there in an intimate way that doesn’t happen on stage.

    ABC Oscar Backstage Pass Melissa Leo

    Melissa Leo looks like she can hardly believe it's her name freshly applied to that Oscar statuette.

 

Post-show clips

I checked back later in the week and found the playlists of edited videos had grown to include clips from the Thank You, Press and other cams.  I noticed first that it appeared not all of the highlights were included.  Next, I was surprised to find wild audio included in the clips from cameras that only played background music during the live show. Did someone go through those to make sure no naughty words or catty remarks were included?

Speaking of naughty words, the videos added post-show included a “Backstage Cam” clip title “Melissa Leo.”  It turned out to be the control room camera showing when the best supporting actress winner dropped an F-bomb in her acceptance speech.  Neither her audio nor the control room audio was there, so the inclusion of this clip felt random.  I didn’t even see anyone reaching for a big 7-second delay panic button.

Was the Price Right?

The app felt worth the 99-cent price, especially since it worked on both the iPad and iPhone. This made the $4.99 price for expanded coverage on a computer feel expensive by comparison.  Juggling the cameras while watching TV kept me busy.  The app was not branded as a 2011 version, so what happens in 2012? Will the same app work? Will I need to make an in-app purchase for next year? Or will I need to just get a new 2012 app and delete this year’s version?  It would be interesting to see the price elasticity of raising the price to $1.99.  Remember, Apple gets their 30% cut of every purchase, so ABC doesn’t even get all of that dollar I paid.

There were plenty of complaints in the iTunes store reviews of people saying it was not worth 99-cents.  I think most of those can be attributed to misunderstanding the app, not finding the navigation controls, and connection problems between the servers and their devices.

What Else Can It Do?

Looking at the files the app pulls from Oscar.go.com reveals switches and messages that could be used in certain circumstances. For example, there is a flag for whether the app is in maintenance mode and a message to tell users “This application is currently under maintenance.”  There are also messages prepared in case users need to be told the app has been updated in the iTunes store and they need to upgrade.

There are also variables set up for advertisers and one suggesting how long a sponsor should be displayed in the app. I did not see any advertisers with the live feeds on Oscar night, but did see pre-rolls for the edited videos.

The XML from the server indicates ABC is using Omniture to track the app.  It appears to report each time a user switches cameras.

It’s also this XML file that tells the app where to check to get the correct version of the ABC logo. During the show, the logo image also had a message telling app users it was on ABC live at the moment. The image dropped the live message and just showed the ABC logo in the post-show state. Perhaps that was also specific to the user’s time zone.

The feedback form XML suggests it gathers analytic data to help troubleshooting. Variables cover the user’s bandwidth, device, connection type, and user agent.

The content comes from edge-cached servers to support a large load as you might expect.  Domains used include cdn.video.abc.com (ad info via Level 3 Communications), ll.static.abc.com (images via Limelight Networks), awards.edgesuite.net (thumbnails for the grid pseudo-mosaic updating via Akamai), aeg.mdialog.com (video playlist via mDialog Mobile Video Platform), and varieties such as p-aegoscars-ios1.aegdm.com.edgesuite.net for video streams.

This look under the hood indicates a high level of technical development effort, which is at it should be when you charge money for your app. You can tell this had serious horsepower and integration work behind it.  It was not running off some developer’s Mickey Mouse server under his desk at Disney. (Sorry, I had to work that in somewhere.)

What users said

Reviews posted within a week of the show in the iTunes store revealed 54 five-star reviews and 95 one-star reviews, the lowest rating available, and only a smattering in the middle. So people seemed to love it or hate it.

Compliments from users included:

  • “Loved this bird’s eye view”
  • “Streaming was immediate and clear.”
  • “Just sort of cool to watch the stars hang out and chat.”

Issues reported by users included

  • “I downloaded this on Sunday , the day of the show. It still shows ‘waiting.’” (This sounds like a downloading problem with the iPhone and iTunes that used to happen to me on the iPhone 3G sometimes, but was not app specific. –Wes)
  • “Video quality was so awful I couldn’t stand looking at it for more than a few seconds.”
  • “Very bad quality of video and it was extremely choppy for actual viewing.”
  • “On Saturday this app worked fine… around 7 p.m. CST the navigation was lost, there was no choice to move or go elsewhere.” (I think this person started in the horizontal/landscape mode and couldn’t see controls only available in the vertical/portrait mode. –Wes)
  • “Audience cams were so far away, you couldn’t really see them that good… Never got to see Colin Firth in press room, it shut off before he got there.”
  • “It was very disappointing to not have a camera for this stage so you could flip between the actual show and the ‘backstage’ cameras.”
  • “I was able to see the red carpet however I was not able to see the Governors Ball as the description said we would be able to. Very disappointed.”
  • “The flashes in the camera cam made them unwatchable.  Better luck improving it for next year.”
  • “Great idea but no sound.  No support available at the website to troubleshoot.”
  • “No control to switch cameras as stated.”

There are a few constructive takeaways from the negative comments.  First, some people were not seeing the navigation controls.  My guess is they started the iPad in landscape view and didn’t figure out like I did to turn it vertically to access the navigation. The app needs controls when tapping the video in landscape view like most other apps offer.  In this case, I think the app was working as designed, but that some users had an issue with the design.

Second, those of us in the business have to remember most people are not used to seeing raw, live camera feeds. They’re probably expecting it to look like a reality show and don’t know how much time is spent swinging around a camera, zooming and focusing.  They also probably don’t know how little action actually happens most of the time. Those stretches of inaction can seem quite dull.  I didn’t give that much thought on Oscar night, but I’m probably used to raw feeds from being a line producer and field producer.  Based on the comments, the public probably needs to be given a different expectation in advance and more guidance on how to integrate the app into their Oscar night viewing.

Third, some users had issues with the video.  It worked fine for me in an area with great AT&T 3G service and on a good wireless-n router with a cable modem, but the comments are clear that some users had issues. It might help to offer live online support during the show and provide a way to hear from the the app admins or other users.  I wouldn’t expect to get an answer back quickly if I used the in-app feedback form.  Posting info for everyone on Twitter or Facebook would confirm for the audience the app worked for most people.  If it was offered, it wasn’t obvious to me where to find it. Otherwise, people having problems will assume everyone is having problems.

What more do you want? My wish list includes:

  • Social media integration.
  • Fast app-switching and maybe background processing so I could still listen while doing other things.
  • More audio.  Probably impossible and perhaps unwise, but some of the best cams just played Muzak over the video.  I would love to hear the control room feed, but as a former line producer I know I wouldn’t have been comfortable with broadcasting the sound from a whole crew even though I’ve heard of stations doing that.  Maybe I’ll take lip reading classes.
  • More stars during and after the ceremony.  Show me the presenters getting ready.
  • A host cam. Follow them backstage during the whole show. With audio.  I was disappointed I couldn’t see what Anne Hathaway and James Franco do when they’re not on stage.
  • More Chyron. Lower-third supers to identify people on the raw backstage cams would be helpful.
  • Live cams in the theater during the show, not just breaks.  Maybe even an open mic cam during the breaks so anyone can run up and say hi if they want.  You could do a “Forget You!” cam for the losers, but that should probably be saved for the privacy of a post-show limo ride.
  • TiVo-like capability to pause, rewind and catch back up with real-time.
  • Replay all the live cams on demand. I want to go back and catch things I missed. Plus, I’m on eastern time and had to go to bed at some point.  Since I couldn’t stay up to watch the Governor’s Ball cameras all night, I would like to go back and see if anything interesting happened. People on the west coast have an edge in this department.
  • Netflix integration so I can add some of the movies from the show to my queue. Netflix tweeted the next day to ask users what movies they added while watching the show. I know it probably wouldn’t make sense from ABC’s standpoint to push Netflix, but perhaps integration with a vendor such as Amazon would generate some incremental revenue and provide a nice service.  I might be willing to cough up some money on the spot for an animated short I had never heard of that just won an Oscar.

Two screen or not two screen?

The big question is whether viewers want their interactivity on the TV screen or on another device.  Can they can pay attention to both? I had trouble doing so and had to choose where to spend my time.  Having a TiVo HD gave me the power to control the broadcast.

Do you give up on families watching together if only one of you has an iPad in the living room or you’re sitting there with headphones to listen to the app’s live feed? I felt kind of bad sitting next to my wife concentrating on an app and listening for gems rather than sharing the experience of our favorite award show together.

The two screen experience may just be a way to focus the attention of users like me who already multitask during many shows anyway.  An app like this does super-serve the super fan and provide something to watch during a show that by its nature has some obligatory but less than riveting moments.

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