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3 June 2021

PCCW adds Watch Party feature – but where is big screen support?

Faultline has been keeping a close eye on the co-watching hype bubble – into which one company has been singlehandedly pumping more hot air into than any other. That vendor is UK-based Sceenic, which has just helped justify its recent marketing antics with a major deal at PCCW Media – delivering a co-viewing feature for the Hong Kong-based firm’s Now TV streaming service.

Some confusion ensued from Sceenic’s press release, however, which linked to the website for the Now streaming service from Comcast-owned European operator Sky, rather than for PCCW’s Now TV site. We think this was an honest mistake from Sceenic, so we won’t overthink it, although there is an overwhelming temptation to conclude that Sceenic has inadvertently revealed two customers with one stone.

Focusing on Now TV (the APAC one), Sceenic has delivered a Watch Party feature just in time for the forthcoming EUFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament starting in mid-June – enabling viewers to watch live matches together via the Now Player app.

The Euros are the first real test for co-viewing technology at scale. With so much uncertainty on a country-by-country basis on whether sports fans will be able to watch the tournament in bars, restaurants, or on large outside screens, OTT video providers feel a moral duty to create social viewing experiences for subscribers.

That said, monetizing watch parties is another matter entirely. Every co-viewing feature we have come across is a free added extra for existing subscribers, although potentially a pull for new subscribers looking to socialize their live sports viewing experiences.

A question we posed recently, that remains largely unanswered, is whether co-viewing features are here to stay or whether these experiences will always be associated with the Covid-19 pandemic? It’s true that viewing habits will never return fully to how they were pre-pandemic, but surely demand for co-viewing features will peter out once societies reopen doors.

A huge caveat is that co-viewing is consistently exclusive to mobile devices and is not available on big screens, due to most TV sets not being equipped with cameras. We are sure companies like Sceenic are working on ways to use your mobile device as the camera and microphone, while the action plays out on the main TV set, although we understand the level of advanced synchronization required to make this happen is not within reach just yet. For live sports, where bigger is always better in terms of screen size, this is a major drawback and fixing this as soon as possible will define the future of co-viewing.

Another way co-viewing could go is becoming more interactive not with your family and friends but with the action happening on screen. We recall a recent panel session which discussed the power of audiences interacting with performances – in what was coined the transition from web 1.0 to web 2.0. This certainly works well in environments such as live streamed concerts, but will be much trickier to build into live sports matches, with the exception of having fans appear on big screens around stadiums via live video links – which was a common sight during the pandemic.

Eyebrows were raised at Sceenic’s announcement accidentally linking to Sky’s Now streaming platform, given that Sceenic is the company behind BT Sport’s Watch Together feature – one of Sky’s fiercest rivals.

Sceenic says BT Sport was won over by its turnkey video offering targeted at OTT, IPTV and set top providers, enabling integration of technology into existing platforms, with GDPR-compliant co-watching technology customizable for viewers without the time-consuming and costly processes of developing custom systems from scratch or from multiple vendors.

Sceenic also boasts Deutsche Telekom, LaLiga, EE and Virgin Connect as big customer names. Once tradeshows beginning reopening doors, we should be able to gauge the popularity of co-watching experiences depending on how many demos we see over the coming couple of years.

Speed certainly seems to be the top selling point of Sceenic’s platform, supported by a scalable architecture, while ensuring synchronization across devices requires all the different SDKs to have simple but complementing APIs – which the vendor recognizes as an ongoing challenge for its development team.