There’s hardly a time I see the 11 o’clock news on WPVI, the ABC-owned station in the Philadelphia area, over a TV set. Mostly, I watch it with the iPad propped up on my knees in the bedroom, getting my dose of the station’s interpretation of area news--mainly “senseless” murders and approaching storms--from the station’s authenticated Watch app before I go to bed.
I’m hardly alone. The ABC Watch app is available in the eight markets where Disney-ABC owns stations and allows users to view the entire broadcast schedule in real time, as are apps for the other cable properties and the news division, and separate apps for special features or on-demand. TVEverywhere doesn't just sound like a slogan.
Together, they’re changing how content gets from one place to the other, and coming soon, the company will be ramping up its social-media components and adding other features to better match what it is has on the air to what it’s offering online.
The company says its Watch apps have been downloaded 20 million times and boast 1.7 billion views, through arrangements in place with all the major video programming distributors, that allow ABC and Disney programs to be seen on just about any device you can think of.
“Consumption on mobile devices has now surpassed online. We have more views of our stuff on iPads and iPhones than we do on computers,” says Albert Cheng, EVP and chief product of digital for the company. “That happened last year.”
What’s happening right now is instructive. In the next couple weeks, no doubt, record millions of viewers will access ABC and ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup via Watch apps. (ESPN's Watch product is part of the sports unit's division.)
There are still vagaries in the business, largely because audience measurement of mobile audiences won’t begin happening until later this year.
“I think at this point it is safe to say we don’t know exactly who is watching by device but anecdotally it’s upper income and younger,” Cheng says. But it’s no longer so easy to just assume a smartphone video user is a younger viewer.
“What you will find pretty surprising is that device penetration is getting pretty high,” he says. “You’re are getting to the point that demographics are probably more split by operating system. Higher income, more media savvy, more high media consumer-types have Apple devices than you would see with Android devices. That’s the split we’re starting to see.”
And also, the Watch telecasts are not exactly what you’d see on the air or via cable. For one, in Philadelphia and presumably other ABC Watch apps in other markets, viewers don’t usually see the sports segment of the newscast because of rights issues with the major sports entities over the use of highlights. (Instead, viewers see an electronic scoreboard with a maddening electronic music bed playing in the background.)
Viewers also see a lot of station promos, where ads should be. That’s because you’re not seeing the same commercials that air on the broadcasts or cable telecasts themselves. The mobile audience measurement isn’t there, in a Nielsen-based world though it will be later this year.
“That’s one reason,” Cheng says. “The second reason, and I think this is very important, is that a lot of our advertising clients have to start clearing their creative for digital distribution.
"We’re headed toward [cross-platform] ads in the fall. We’ll decide whether it makes sense for us to do dynamic ad insertion like we do now in the watch product, or we will just run the same commercials from the broadcast in the watch TV product to be counted as part of C3 or C7 [Nielsen ratings].
“The one big barrier about which way to go is, once again, is whether the ad community clears all their creative. If there is any piece that has not been cleared, then the answer will always be that ad insertion is where we are headed with this.”
Cheng doesn’t seem like the kind of man who says one word more than is necessary, so his appraisal of advertisers’ response to cross-platform plays is gentle.
“To be fair,” he says, “ we are at the forefront of this. In many ways, we [Disney ABC] are the only people doing this with the full knowledge that we have to respect rights. We’re early so we’re trying to explain that to advertisers. We’re kind of the tip of the spear here.”
It’s an interesting place to be, though. Cheng and Disney ABC aren’t the first to recognize how viewership patterns differ between TV and mobile uses of their channels, but the differences are significant.
“I’ll give you an example,” he says. “One of the biggest effects we saw when we launched ABC Watch was an overwhelmingly high usage of ABC live in the mornings during the commute. Usually, when you look at viewership curves, usually over a 24-hour period, the prime time is the highest, and mornings smaller than prime time but you see a little bump there for news. In the mobile situation, you see just the opposite. The peaks are in the morning and not as much use in the evening. What’s happening is that people are taking these things on the bus and on the train and that sort of thing.”
The Watch apps are full of explosive revelations, it seems. Late last year, Disney ABC used its WatchDisneyJunior app to debut a series, “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West,” aimed at pre-schoolers aged 2-7, and included nine episodes online before they ever showed up on the cable channel itself.
The results were overwhelming and instructive about what early premieres can do for a series on television.
Disney Junior’s premiere of the series set records for among the highest-rated shows aimed at preschool kids demos, and on the Watch Disney Junior app, it reached 23 million kids, more than any other show. So obviously, they know how to use the IPad.