Tech by VICE

'Beat Shazam' Is TV's Latest Attempt to Reclaim the Smartphone Generation

The show pits humans against the ubiquitous music app.

by Nathan E. Smith
Jun 30 2017, 12:00pm

Jamie Foxx promoting the show in New York. Image: Noam Galai/WireImage

There's a new game show on network TV with an almost sci-fi premise. Fox's Beat Shazam, hosted by Jamie Foxx, takes a classic game show concept and twists it for the 21st century. Three teams, armed with naught but the sort of musical knowledge suitable for barroom trivia, battle each other to outguess the all-knowing, always-listening smartphone app Shazam.

Shazam offers a sort of acoustic exorcism: When we encounter a song, it no longer has to live inside our head until we figure out what it is. With the help of the app's database, we can know the song within seconds, add it to a Spotify playlist, and shuffle onward to the next musical number. It has radically altered our engagement with music, turning pop songs into pieces of data that can be exchanged for a portion of our privacy, and has been downloaded over a billion times in 190 countries.

The most critical employment of Shazam is not actually in the TV studio

Despite its man-against-machine premise, Beat Shazam's origins were more organic. "The idea for the show came from my annual New Year's Eve party," says creator and executive producer Jeff Apploff, who also developed Fox's Don't Forget the Lyrics! "A live band performs, and every year at midnight we play a game that's basically Beat Shazam. The band plays songs and guests get points for correctly guessing the song and the artist."

Shazam lends the show its name, but contestants only have the chance to take on the app in the last round; all their competitors before the finals are actual people. The most critical employment of Shazam is not actually in the TV studio, but the home, where viewers are encouraged to play along, compete against each other, and Shazam the show itself to unlock exclusive content.

Pocket-sized screens have created continual problems for the TV entertainment industry, which has struggled to keep the eyes and attention of distracted viewers. As a solution, many producers have turned to the potential of second-screen programming that encourages viewers to interact with their devices.

Beat Shazam is not the first time an app has been integrated into a primetime network program. In 2013, NBC premiered the Ryan Seacrest-hosted The Million Dollar Quiz, a live game show that allowed viewers to play along at home on a quiz app custom-made for the show. NBC bet heavily on the success of The Million Dollar Quiz, an event that, according to The New York Times, was "billed as a landmark in the convergence of broadcast, online, and social media." But the network lost big; the show was plagued with technical problems and didn't make it past the first season.

So far, Beat Shazam's debut on May 25th helped give Fox its highest Thursday ratings in over a year, and has maintained stable viewership since. Fox came in a tight second place behind NBC in the 2016-2017 broadcast season, and new summer programs like Beat Shazam have helped keep Fox nipping at the peacock's heels.

This success can be partly attributed to the show's reliance on one of the most popular, and thus familiar, apps of all time. Most viewers won't have to learn a new interface, like they did with The Million Dollar Quiz; they already know how to hit the Shazam button. "In order to have a successful TV show, everything has to work and align," says Aploff. "You can only be so interested in the app if it comes in at the back-end."

Meanwhile, Shazam itself had radically evolved from its original existence as an app used to identify unknown songs to one that can turn almost any piece of media into a multi-platform, marketable experience. Users can now Shazam movies, television, and commercials. Thanks to the app's visual recognition software, they can even Shazam print advertisements and packaging, like in Shazam's joint "Share A Coke and Song" campaign with Coca-Cola, which encouraged users to scan Coke bottles specially branded with song lyrics. Shazam has also entangled itself with other apps; once a user's Shazam and Spotify accounts have been connected, Shazam will automatically add songs to a Spotify playlist.

Beat Shazam points toward the future of not just two industries, but maybe all media. As a television producer, Apploff says his job is to "engage with audiences how they are engaging with shows," which means meeting viewers at the smartphones and tablets in their laps.

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