They’re big in America, and now TV companion apps - also called second screen apps - are hitting the big time in the UK.
What are TV companion apps?
The biggest TV companion apps don’t have any special links to TV: Twitter and Facebook are just convenient forums that proved perfect for discussing your favourite TV shows with friends and strangers.
Broadcasters love them: live comments mean live viewers, and for the commercial channels that means people are actually watching the ads. In the USA, audience ratings agency Nielsen is producing Twitter traffic charts as an alternative to traditional viewing figures.
The BBC loves Twitter because it’s a great measure of audience engagement, and a cheap way to fill dull moments on BBC Breakfast (also known as: “All of BBC Breakfast.”) It’s surprising there isn’t a Twitter client built into BBC iPlayer.
But app providers and broadcasters have spotted the potential of smartphones and tablets to go beyond the simple call-and-response singalong of social networks. In the UK, Zeebox is the king of these apps, but Google ‘TV companion app’ and you’ll find several competing apps are fighting for American users.
They’re integrating social networks into a richer experience, or turning your handheld device into an extension of your digital TV Box and replacement for your remote control.
Sky, Virgin Media, YouView and Freeview all have companion apps with a wide variety of features. We haven’t included Sky Go (link) because it’s really an extension of your subscription, not a companion.
There’s nothing for Freesat (an app is expected for Free Time from Freesat in 2013). Surprisingly few Freeview HD boxes have companion apps, but we’ve included the app for View21 recorder.
- Freeview HD TV Guide
- Sky Sports for iPad
- Virgin Media TV Anywhere
- View21 Play
- Tweets with iPlayer and catch-up TV coming to Zeebox
- Haven and Defiance fans to get all of SyFy’s goodies in Sync with app
- YouView Android app release date: May 2013 ETA
- Virgin TV Anywhere: hands-on video first look
- BBC planning Antiques Roadshow second screen app
Freeview HD TV Guide
A simple but elegant grid-style TV guide - you select your Freeview HD region to pick up the appropriate schedules - and a Top Picks page that monitors Twitter to find trending TV show hashtags.
Sadly, that will mean you’re overwhelmed with populist hits like Made In Chelsea and are unlikely to discover a sleeper hit on BBC Four, but that’s trolling the masses for you.
There are also recommendations based on your favourite TV shows, and a guide to getting Freeview HD for those who don’t have it.
User reviews suggest the app has gone downhill since its original release, with Now/Next schedules replacing the full week ahead on smartphones, and no listings at all on our Samsung Galaxy S2, but we liked the tablet interface on our Asus Transformer and on the iPad.
- Platforms: iOS 5.0+ (iPhone; iPad), Android 1.6+,
- Subscription required: Sky TV subscription for remote record/control
The original UK remote control app, Sky+ lets you browse the entire Sky TV Guide, and if you have Sky+, you can tell it to record a programme and even set up a series link. It’s upgraded so often we’ve dedicated a whole Sky+ app page to it.
There’s also a showcase of recommended programmes, which is so poorly-tailored to your viewing habits that it comprehensively proves that Sky isn’t collecting any information about your viewing habits.
Sky+ remote record uses the satellite signal to send its instructions, so your Sky+ doesn’t need to be connected to your broadband. The app’s got a lovely layout and it’s very easy to pair it with your Sky+ box.
The iPhone/iPad version is considerably more advanced than the Android version, letting you access your Sky+ Planner over your home network (your Sky+ must be connected as well) and browse, set up or delete recordings from your handheld screen without interrupting the TV.
It’s also a complete remote control, with either a virtual remote layout for selecting channels, or just scrolling through a channel list, and swiping/tapping the screen to play, pause, fast forward or rewind.
Next: Sky Sports for iPad
Sky Sports for iPad
- Platforms: iPad (iOS 5.+)
- Subscription required: Sky Sports for all live sports; Sky HD for F1; standalone subscription without live streaming
There’s also a Sky Sports app for Android and iPhone, but it’s the iPad edition which leaps out as a real TV companion (or alternative). As with Sky+, Sky Sports for iPad has got its own Recombu Digital page.
Starting its evolution in March with F1, there are now dedicated ‘control centres’ for football, rugby union, rugby league, cricket, golf, tennis, F1, boxing and cycling.
Each one contains a wealth of news, stats and video clips to keep every fan busy during a dull defensive game or any cricket match.
Sky Sports subscribers (and HD subscribers for F1) get lots more including form guides, live split screen video feeds, curated Twitter feeds for sports including Barclaycard Premier League football, the Ryder Cup, UEFA Champions League and F1.
It’s useful if you’re away from your TV for the big game, but as avid F1 fans, we’ve concluded that more can be less. You can sometimes get so distracted trying to watch on different screens that you miss the unexpected events that make your sport so enjoyable.
Next: Virgin Media TV Anywhere
Virgin Media TV Anywhere
Virgin Media promised a companion app for TiVo when it launched in 2010: it took a while but they’ve effectively combined Sky+ and Sky Go into one package that puts TiVo in your pocket or bag.
It’s on iPhone and iPad for now, and the Android version is hotly anticipated. For now, Android Virgin Media get a rather basic-looking remote record app in the mould of Sky+.
With a WiFi connection wherever you are, it can connect you directly to your TiVo box via its built-in broadband connection, so you can manage all of your recordings and Wish Lists on the go, with a 14-day programme guide, and set up recordings with Series Links.
Away from home, you can also stream up to 45 live TV channels, depending on your subscription, and in 2013 you’ll be able to access up to 4,000 hours of on-demand TV from Virgin Media’s library.
At home, you can use it as a replacement remote control, swiping to play, pause, slo-mo, fast forward or rewind, or let it become a second screen to get more information about the show you’re watching, or lead you on a journey to find similar shows or films in the TiVo TV guide.
There are also Twitter and Facebook links to let people know what you’re watching - and what you think. If the TV’s busy, you can also stream recordings, live TV or on demand video from your TiVo to your iPad or iPhone.
In many ways, Virgin Media TV Anywhere leapfrogs the Sky+ app and makes TiVo a much more exciting proposition. If you want to find out more, follow the link see a video run through of the Virgin Media TV Anywhere app.
British TV companion app Zeebox was invented by former BBC iPlayer guru Anthony Rose, who sold the company to Sky, although he still runs it as a very independent entity.
The basic premise of Zeebox is a TV guide that’s integrated with social media like Twitter and Facebook, but it’s also a remote control for Sky+, Virgin Media TiVo, and smart TVs including Samsung.
If you’re one of life’s followers, the social media functions tell you which shows have got the most buzz on Twitter, and what your friends are watching, so you won’t miss out on tomorrow’s water cooler conversation.
You can follow what different celebrities are watching (though we have to doubt that Sky Sports’s Lee McKenzie is really watching Sky F1 at 6pm on a December evening), and set reminders not to miss those socially-approved shows.
You can also choose to share what you’re watching - with Sky+ or TiVo this can work automatically - and tweet or update your status as you watch. Zeebox presents curated feeds from the public and celebrities with every show, without having to track down hashtags.
There are also competitions, links to buy apps or real objects from shows you’re watching (where did you think the money came from?) and Zeebox is experimenting with its own spin-off shows for major TV events.
This autumn’s X-Factor, for instance, was accompanied by a satirical spin-off during the ad breaks.
If you’re a social media TV addict, then Zeebox should be on your phone or tablet alongside Hootsuite or Tweetdeck as an essential tool to stay in touch with friends real and virtual.
If you’re a Sky+ user with Android devices, it’s at least a curiosity with remote control features, and potentially much more.
- Platforms: iOS 5.0+
- Subscription required: No
It was almost unthinkable that a smart TV service like YouView would launch without a companion app, though it’s no surprise it’s available first on the more uniform iOS devices.
The YouView app has the essential minimum roster of features you’d expect: a seven-day TV guide and remote record via your internet connection, with series link support.
Sad to say, that’s about it, but we’re promised much more in 2013, as well as an Android version.
- Platforms: iOS 3.2+ (iPhone, iPad), Android version varies
- Subscription required: £4.99 for ad-free version
Shazam isn’t strictly speaking a TV companion app, but it is handy if you’ve ever wanted to track down a TV theme tune or incidental music.
Just let the app listen to the tune, and if there’s a decent chunk without too much background noise, Shazam can identify almost any song that’s been released. You can see the lyrics in time, buy the track on Amazon MP3, or add it to a Spotify playlist.
It is gradually becoming a companion app, as well, with experiments in advert tagging being attempted across app-friendly reality and talent shows in the UK. Tag the ad, and Shazam will send you to a web page about the product.
In the USA, Shazam can already tag any TV show on any channel, opening extra information about the music, celebrity buzz or trivia (and no doubt product placements). The UK is next in line for this exciting development.
View21 is a Freeview HD recorder that makes good use of its broadband connection to provide BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter on your TV screen.
The View21 Play app lets you stream recordings or live TV from your View21 box over WiFi on a local network connection, even if someone else is watching live TV or another recording. You can also switch from watching on the box to your handheld device, or vice versa.
You can also browse the Freeview programme guide up to eight days ahead, and set recordings on your View 21 box or delete old recordings, but only over your home network.
Streaming video is standard-definition only, and the app really needs full remote record from outside the local network, but the Play app certainly puts View21 in a class of its own among Freeview HD recorders.