I stumbled upon an interesting iPad application last week, the CBS Fall Preview app. I say “stumbled” because I have not seen any promotion for it, but happened across it while searching for a “Survivor” show app — something apparently only available on Sprint for the HTC Evo phone. It was also mentioned on ITVT.
CBS says it is a “first-of-its-kind” app. I couldn’t find any other broadcast network apps dedicated to fall premieres, so that made me curious enough to check it out.
The app starts with a home screen featuring actress Pauley Perrette of “NCIS” surrounded by several new shows in “See n’ Say” fashion. Pauley describes each show in the circle around her.
The mix of control interfaces is a little confusing. Pauley’s video circle has controls for pause, next and previous buttons, but they just control her brief descriptions of each new show. There are other app navigation controls at the top to see the schedule and tweets. So at first glance it looks like there isn’t much to the app without obvious access to more info about the new shows.
Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t make sense to release a fall premiere app without much to offer on the fall premieres, so I finally had the bright idea to tap on the shows around Pauley’s video circle. It worked! In hindsight, perfectly obvious. But for some reason the shows just don’t look like buttons to me. Maybe it’s because the app highlights each show section as Pauley discusses it and then the show is de-selected. Maybe it’s because this uses a custom design and not the standard Apple iOS user interface controls. In any case, the show sections look like just images to my fresh eyes and not tappable areas inviting exploration. The app also seems to have a little lag that makes it not respond immediately to the first touch sometimes. Perhaps that is because of Pauley’s video playing or due to downloading information for the next screen.
Once I found the in-depth pages, I was able to learn more about the shows. The new show pages are dynamically populated through a JSON text data feed from www.cbs.com. They include videos (served by Limelight Networks) and pictures of the new shows and cast members. This area of the app locked up my first-gen iPad twice. The first time happened after tapping the “add to calendar” link to set a reminder for a show. I had to kill the app entirely in the iPad’s fast-switching tray and restart it. It worked fine after that for awhile, but locked up again after I watched a video clip. I later saw a couple of app store reviews complaining of similar problems after watching videos.
Photo slideshows are nicely done and allow swiping to navigate and tapping to enlarge the image. The only suggestion I might make is that when you tap a full screen photo, it should take you back to the photo’s smaller version rather than just exiting the slideshow completely as this app does.
Some screens in the app offer a calendar function. That’s a nice way to set a reminder to watch a new show, especially with so many fall premiere dates to keep straight. The iPad calendar should pop-up with a reminder and audio tone (if not muted) when it’s time to watch. I’m almost surprised I haven’t seen more TV-related apps do this. The TV schedule also lets you post to Facebook that you will be watching.
Most of the app works only in portrait mode, but some screens work in landscape mode. The built-in memory game goes both routes in an odd way. You have to enter the game in portrait mode and then turn the iPad sideways to start playing. Why not just build the game in portrait mode like the rest of the app? Why can’t I just have a “start game” button? The instruction about this seems a little hidden at the bottom of the screen and not intuitive.
The memory game features a picture of an actress at the top, but doesn’t mention she’s the star of the show “Unforgettable.” Get it? It’s a memory game and her character remembers everything? That banner might be a good place to reinforce that tidbit (“Carrie Wells, the woman with a perfect memory in ‘Unforgettable’”). Maybe they’re assuming you’ve already read the promo material or they’re just going for a soft sell.
The memory game challenges you to beat the 2-minute clock to match pairs of cards containing pictures of actors. The app doesn’t tell you it’s going to pause the clock after each pairing and give you the actor’s bio, so they manage to slip in some more promotion here. It was a bit distracting at first since I was all geared up with adrenaline to beat a fast-paced video game, but then I was okay when I saw the clock was pausing and the promos were not affecting game performance.
I had one technical problem with the game in that it did not show me a bio for the final pair of cards. It just finished the game. I specifically wanted to see that bio because I thought I recognized the actor’s picture and wanted to know what show he was on.
After the memory game, the app invites you to enter a sweepstakes for a chance to win a 50” plasma TV worth about $900. The sweepstakes experience is a bit disjointed from the app. First, the sweeps opens http://m.cbs.com/fallsweeps in the Safari web browser, not a browser window embedded in the app. Next, the phone number field doesn’t say up front it won’t accept spaces. I discovered that when I ran out of room typing in the format (555) 555-5555. Finally, it had to offer some rough text instructions for the next step: “For more on CBS’s 2011 Fall Previews click hereor relaunch the CBS Fall Preview App. on your iPad.” (The words “hereor” are missing a space and “App.” usually doesn’t have a period). These small, rough edges in the sweeps contrasted with the app’s nice design and lack of typos, so you could clearly tell you were in a different area that was probably built by a different team.
Two things seemed odd in the sweepstakes rules. First, the sweeps runs from September 5 to October 19. I’m surprised it didn’t start and end sooner. This might be by design, but I imagine it could have been due to a last-minute marketing idea or legal clearance as often happens in this business. I’m wondering how many of these shows might be canceled by October 19. Second, the rules say “MUST OWN AN IPAD PRIOR TO SEPTEMBER 5, 2011 AND INSTALL THE CBS FALL REVIEW APPLICATION.” Why do the CBS lawyers care whether I own the iPad I use to enter? Why do they care that I bought one prior to September 5 rather than any other day? Can you really not enter if you buy an iPad on October 18?
The app’s TV schedule includes all the primetime programming, not just the new shows. The grid has a nice design and you swipe around to navigate. Most shows have a show logo on the grid, but others just have a generic black box with a CBS logo. I couldn’t spot a pattern in why some have nicely designed boxes and some don’t, but I am surprised a heavily promoted new show like “Person of Interest,” which was present on the app’s home screen, only got a generic black box.
The app also has a Twitter section to display a stream of tweets from certain shows. There is a button to follow the show’s tweets, but it didn’t work for me late on September 15. I logged into Twitter when it prompted me, but tapping the follow button had no result. I checked my Twitter account later and the shows I tried were not added. I tried the app again on Sept. 18 and the follow button worked. Maybe I needed to restart the app after logging in to Twitter.
Chevrolet is the sponsor with logo presence and banner ads through much of the app. The logo and banners link to the iPad-friendly web site for the Chevrolet Cruze Eco in an embedded browser. The Cruze is a compact car priced at $16,525, so I wonder whether the CBS iPad audience is the right target market for it. Maybe the Chevrolet Volt hybrid at $40,280 (before tax credit up to $7,500), a car more expensive and environmentally-friendly, would be a better match for iPad users?
A check behind the scenes shows the app uses AdMarvel and DoubleClick for ad serving and analytics. The analytics seem more tied to ad serving and not app usage. For example, I don’t see the app making calls to track a lot of user actions as you navigate. Those could be tracked somewhat on the server side.
The iPad app store has 30 ratings for the CBS Fall Preview app with 19 of them at 5 out of 5 stars. I’m frankly a little surprised that so many of the ratings were that high for an app that is narrowly focused on promotion. The most consistent comment by users was a desire for full episodes. This would have seemed a prime place to show full-episode sneak previews or at least longer clips from the shows than the ones present.
While I have not happened to see promotion for the app, CBS did post a 10-second YouTube video (preceded by a 30-second pre-roll ad) that has received 5,468 views since September 2nd. It looks like a TV promo that probably ran on CBS. They also issued a press release September 1st.
Overall, the app seems to serve CBS fans and people interested in the included sweepstakes. There are still opportunities to add even more content and super-serve fans, although that production comes with a price. This could also be used for teaser campaigns by releasing a little more content each week or requiring a keyword from TV to unlock new material. I look at this as an interesting experiment since the iPad audience is probably not yet large enough to move the ratings needle. Now watch for whether the other broadcast networks follow suit.
Questions for Discussion With Your Team
- Is a limited-term app for a premiere season worth the time and effort to create it? (The better your ability to build, the lower the hurdle.)
- Should a fall premiere promotion be a standalone application, which requires building a user base, or be built into a larger existing application that already has a user base? Do you think your answer today will change in 3 years?
- Will users expect to find more content in this app after the fall premieres? Will they look for full episodes in this app?
- How many app downloads and users are necessary to reach the TV audience goal? How much promotion is required to reach the desired number of app downloads?
- Do promotions for the fall premiere app also count just as much for promotions of the new shows themselves?
- Since some functions integrated with the operating system (e.g. setting calendar reminders) require an app rather than a mobile page, will programmers someday need to create three versions of the same app for iOS, Android and Windows platforms? Or would it be better to forgo advanced functions and stick to HTML5 pages as a lowest common denominator?