Neilsen’s fourth quarter 2011 survey revealed that 45 percent of Americans who own tablet PCs use them on a daily basis while watching television. A recent study of consumer media habits commissioned by Time Warner’s Time Inc. found that digital natives (20 to 29 years old) switch media venues about 27 times per nonworking hour, or more than 13 times during a standard half-hour television show.
The people behind Charlotte-based OtherScreen understand the implications of these usage statistics for any business or concern—such as television broadcasters—that relies on audience engagement for its success. The company has developed a software platform and service that drives attention back to the broadcast and increases viewer engagement, providing value to the advertiser.
In the beginning…
In the beginning, mankind watched television one show at a time, commercials and all. There was no such thing as a remote; it hardly seemed worth the trouble to get up and walk across the room to change the channel. When the sponsor said “stay tuned,” mankind followed instructions.
Then, when the broadcaster took “a short break,” mankind learned it was okay to do the same; leaving the television behind for a trip to the kitchen or bathroom. That’s when all the trouble started.
Ever since, advertisers have sought out more creative and sophisticated ways to capture and keep the viewers’ attention; advancing the art of advertising to a complex social science. Fast forward 60 years and, despite the phenomenal success of broadcasting, the challenges have grown exponentially.
Now, viewers can channel-surf through hundreds of stations while avoiding the commercials that support the shows they seek. Plus, broadcast content is distributed in many different ways—by Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Apple TV—the list goes on and on.
The problems—or opportunities—don’t end there. For many, young and old, modern life now includes possession of numerous mobile Internet devices including tablets and smartphones, readers and laptops and they are all competing against each other for attention.
“The Internet has dramatically changed television by becoming an ever-present competitor,” says Chris Halligan, CEO and co-founder of OtherScreen along with President Garth Moulton and Vice President, Products, Andrew Gertig.
“Advertisers can no longer count on having a captive audience or even a mildly loyal one,” points out Halligan. “OtherScreen helps retain and drive audience engagement by making the Internet an ally, rather than a competitor.”
While both broadcasters and end users can be considered customers, the company’s revenue comes from broadcasters who obtain licenses to operate the platform. The first customer to sign up was FOX Charlotte. OtherScreen provides companion content to the Wednesday night show called FOX News Edge.
“Prior to visiting, we covered FOX News Edge with 20 of our regular users,” remembers Halligan. “Out of the 25-minute news program, viewers stayed engaged for 22.5 minutes. The team at FOX saw value in the platform and the concept right away.”
Turning distraction into engagement
OtherScreen makes watching television more fun—and more engaging—by turning it into a game. The company pushes companion content, via a live DJ, to a player’s laptop, tablet or smartphone.
Moulton explains: “Imagine you’re watching the Panthers play on Monday Night Football. We’ll ask the viewers to predict whether or not Cam Newton will score a touchdown on the opening drive. You make a prediction; you’re in the action.
“If you’re watching the NBA, we’ll ask, ‘Who scores more this half: Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?’ We’ll also ask engaging trivia and opinion questions throughout the event—some for points and some just for fun. Plus, we raffle off Amazon gift cards at many of our events.”
Individuals can play alone or join forces with a group of people to see if they can top the company’s Social TV Leaderboard. It makes television social, fun and funny. It even builds relationships.
“For example, we have a user named Stitt Daddy,” says Halligan. “I’ve never met him but I thoroughly enjoy watching shows with him. He’s smart, he’s funny and I love listening to what he says when I’m OtherScreening (yes, we also use our name as a verb) shows with him.”
In the same manner that OtherScreen draws viewers back into the programming, it draws them to the commercials and miraculously alters people’s perception of advertising.
“Viewers pride themselves at how good they are at ad-skipping,” says Halligan. “But, when we ask, ‘Do you think there will be a McDonald’s ad during this break?’ audience attitudes about ad breaks change. It’s less of an intrusion.”
“It makes watching television more fun because you are doing it with like-minded individuals,” says Halligan, “like you would at your neighborhood sports bar.”
Making a production out of it
OtherScreen works with live, unscripted broadcasts. “Live” means not time-shifted (that is, content going to DVR) and includes the advertisements. “This is what television built their industry on and we’re helping them preserve that,” says Gertig.
“We typically cover about five to seven events (usually shows) per week,” says Moulton. OtherScreen covers news, sports, game shows and reality shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. It covered the Republican Primary debates.
“The things that make you yell at your TV screen are awesome for OtherScreen,” says Halligan with a laugh. “And all you need is a browser, a smartphone or a tablet. It also helps if you have a sense of humor.”
Even the company’s website is designed to look like an application: “Just sign on and you’re at the event and in the chat room.”
The platform, written by Gertig and Chief Technology Officer Jim Van Fleet, utilizes Ruby on Rails for the Web and also features an iOS app for iPhone and iPad users.
The partners are currently focused on building out product to satisfy the market and had closed a round of venture capital as of April of this year. Chief investors include G51 Capital out of Austin, Charlotte-based VCI Partners, and a local angel. Both Halligan and Moulton have invested in the company as well.
Beyond television, there are several possible avenues for growth in the future including education, corporate training, polling, focus groups, radio and the mining and selling of data analytics.
The idea that using Internet devices that might otherwise be considered “distractions” while watching TV could be used to actually enhance focus and engagement came to Halligan as he watched a Cardinals game with his then 14-year-old son.
“I noticed that, despite being an avid fan, he was paying more attention to his phone than the game on television. I decided to see what would happen if I sent him a text.”
Halligan’s text message asked his son to make a prediction as to whether a particular player would touch second base during the inning. After responding, his son put the phone on his chest and started watching the game again.
“It occurred to me that, used properly, a mobile device could increase focus rather than drive distraction,” says Halligan.
OtherScreen has several unique aspects to its program, according to Gertig:
“First, we have a human being pushing our content out. Certainly, some of the elements of the gamification are totally unique. Plus, we’re focusing on local television stations and audiences instead of going out and building third-party audiences like Facebook. And, our platform allows for the broadcaster to integrate our program into their Web property so users never have to ‘leave’ the site.”
Unexpected story lines
Halligan expected to follow his parents, both of whom were educators, into an education career by earning a Ph.D. in English literature. He even moved to Austin explicitly for that purpose but then accepted a position with a computer company called Dell.
“I had a great run at Dell,” says Halligan, who completed his 11-year career there by running Dell’s $2.5 billion e-commerce organization in 1999.
Halligan subsequently worked for webMethods in northern Virginia where he was part of the most successful software IPO in history, with opening day starting at 12 and closing at 306. Halligan has also built a few startup companies including Kieden which sold to Salesforce.com in 2006. He moved to Charlotte in 2007, while serving as CEO to PokerTek in Matthews.
He is a co-founder of Charlotte Regional Technology Executives Council (CRTEC) which serves as a hub for executives within Charlotte’s growing technology community and awards scholarships to Charlotte area students at UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics.
In 2010, Halligan met Moulton while both men were serving as mentors to Charlotte entrepreneurs. They discovered they knew dozens of people in common and decided they wanted to start a company. Shortly thereafter, Halligan met Gertig at a TEDx conference.
“After Chris told me about his idea, I couldn’t get it out of my head,” said Gertig, “so I went home that night, figured out how to do it and showed it to him the next day.”
“He built the prototype in one night!” says Halligan. “It was basic but it showed that it could be done.”
Moulton thought he would ride the tech bubble of the 1990s to career success and wealth.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Brown University, Moulton successfully worked at several software companies in California.
“I watched people around me get fantastically, ridiculously wealthy, so my biggest decision was which one of these companies was going to take me to the top.”
Then, the tech bubble burst. Moulton decided it was better to own the means so he co-founded and built a company called Jigsaw, which ultimately sold to Salesforce.com for $175 million.
He came to another decision at this time. He didn’t want to raise his children in California, so he set out to find an east coast city (he’s a Vermonter) that met the needs of his family and career goals. He chose Charlotte.
“It was an on-paper move but we were immediately happy with it,” says Moulton.
Raised in Kingston, Jamaica, the son of missionaries, Gertig returned to the States to attend college at Mississippi State University where he studied electrical engineering and joined the ROTC. After serving as an officer in the U. S. Air Force, Gertig took a job in medical device sales with Medtronic that brought him to Charlotte.
Re-upped in Charlotte
“I can’t stress enough that each of us has chosen Charlotte,” says Moulton. “We believe in Charlotte; we can do this here.”
All three say they are glad to be part of the burgeoning technology community in Charlotte. All three are also advocates for startups and appreciate the support and interest local organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Packard Place provide to startups in the city.
“Successful, substantial startups dramatically transform their local economy,” says Halligan. “Look at Dell in Austin and Microsoft in Seattle. Supporting your local startup is enlightened self-interest. Be their customer. Give them advice. If they’re doing something wrong, tell them.”
OtherScreen hopes to be that startup that experiences explosive growth and has a long-term, multigenerational economic effect on the Charlotte economy.
“Audience erosion and fragmentation are happening,” says Halligan. “As the broadcast industry looks for solutions to address and counteract those challenges, we want to be the leading platform to drive audience engagement.”
“We’re friends and we’re in this together; off to a good start,” he concludes.