Tandberg helps NBC Hockey coverage stay sticky all game long via second-screen experience

By Carl Lindemann

Long time hockey fans may remember NBC’s longstanding efforts to translate NHL hockey to the broadcast audience. One of the timeless challenges is keeping the audience engaged between periods. Back in the mid-70’s, the network engaged Hanna-Barbera to create “Peter Puck”, a cartoon character who explained the sport’s intricacies between periods in an effort to reach past the faithful to the philistines. But even with movie hits like “Slap Shot” and epochal events such as the 1980 U.S. Olympic team’s victory driving greater awareness, hockey hasn’t become as hot here as it is in Canada. As an import, it sure beats the heck out of curling, but it has never quite achieved the same stature of baseball, basketball or football here. Now, with the opportunities that today’s “two-screen” environment brings, NBC Sports has enlisted Tandberg Television to try a different strategy with an interactive broadcast of the Stanley Cup finals taking place this week.

The second screen, of course, is the home computer. In the online age, broadcasters and advertisers need to look beyond traditional audience metrics such as time spent viewing. Often, it isn’t the quantity anymore but the quality. Given short attention spans and the constant need for endless, continual thrills, we’ve developed a multitasking mindset that drives viewers to channel and web surfing downtimes that are part of any sport. The idea is to bolster the broadcast by feeding the need when attention drifts. Onscreen graphics and other dazzling effects have pressed this in the single screen realm. Still, people channel surf. But interactivity online adds a new dimension – and new challenges. But what if this vents the need to surf to the second screen while keeping the TV tuned?

According to Dan Kendall, Tandberg’s Senior Director Programmer Sales, this year’s Stanley Cup marks their fourth event with NBC over all, and the first with the sports division. The previous broadcasts have been “live” awards events such as the Golden Globes and Emmy Awards, but this isn’t Tandberg’s first sports exposure, or even hands-on with hockey. Through 16 weeks this past season, they cut their teeth during the regular season for TSN in Canada. How different is creating an interactive hockey experience compared to the entertainment events?

“Sure, these different kinds of shows feel very different and have a very different fan base. But their needs in terms of an interactive experience very similar and familiar to us. All want to get more immersed in event itself and gain the sense of community we can establish with voting, polling and chat. You may be watching alone, but this takes you to a different environment where you’re interacting with others,” Kendall said.

A key to creating the right interactive experience is getting into simpatico with the game.

“You have to get the right sense of pacing (with the audience), what they like, don’t like, how much interaction they want and when they want it. You want to have stuff going on in the lulls. But at the peaks you must let the game take over as it should. Then, as it crests, follow up with more content based on what just happened,” he said.

In terms of production, the analogy that comes to mind is getting the levels right on the music bed for a voiceover. You don’t want to overpower the performance, but need to smooth the softness and fill the silence.

Creating community is not just about mingling with the like-minded. It’s also about making clear the divide between “us” and “them” – in other words, splitting the audience appropriately between the teams squaring off.

“We ask from the get-go for the online audience to identify themselves as being either a Senators’ or a Ducks’ fan. We break out the results of the polling and trivia by this so they get to see which bunch of fans are more astute about trivia, stats, or the ability to predict outcomes. Sports are tribal and we build on that. That we have such strong feelings is why we watch, so why not make the most of it?”

Much of Tandberg’s expertise comes from longstanding investments in interactive TV. But the new two-screen phenom is taking off because it breaks through the maddening limits of the old TV-centric technology. Having the dedicated cable box created a massive barrier to entry. But PCs are everywhere and having a laptop connected by a home wireless network is increasingly common.

“These limits are now gone and interactivity is finally alive and kicking. Part of what’s driving this is how prevalent broadband has become since we started six years ago. Now, we find our customers are getting quite sophisticated. They’re getting smart about what works in a two-screen context and so are beginning to shape the broadcast with that in mind.”

One of the things that works well is, of course, on air promotion for the online experience. Kendall notes a near-universal phenomenon that tells of the “stickiness” of those tapped in online. The numbers don’t just peak or plateau.

“Each time it gets promoted during a telecast, we see a new, greater lever of simultaneous online viewers. This is a very effective tool for viewer retention.”

One way to understand the second screen is as something of a safety net to catch viewers who may drift during a broadcast. Rather than channel surf, they can connect with other aspects of the game by taking advantage of the various options online. Also, inveterate and omnivorous sports fans can check the action elsewhere without changing the channel.

But even if our increasingly distracted audiences become more glued to the second screen than to the broadcast, Kendall’s experience makes it clear what the relationship between these must be in terms of production.

“This can never take the place of the video feed. The interactive experience does best when it is subservient to the video feed. It’s there to enhance and reward the viewer’s experience,” Kendall said.

Whether or not NBC’s first foray into NHL online excitement will expand the audience remains to be seen. But those hooked on hockey are sure to be driven deeper into what can easily turn into a relentless obsession. Remember the Hanson brothers!