There has been a lot of talk about how connected TVs and second-screen apps will change the habits of television audiences, but rather less data on what this means in the real world. UK cable provider Virgin Media has provided some interesting statistics from its recently-launched TiVo-powered set-top box that provide food for thought, though.

Announced in December 2010, the new box was installed in the homes of the first customers this year, and by early August had more than 50,000 users, out of 75,000 who had signed up.

The set-top box includes catch-up TV and on-demand shows; uses TiVo’s famous recommendation engine to learn viewer preferences and suggest programmes in response; and also runs apps including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and BBC iPlayer. Since launch, apps for the V Festival and Harry Potter have been added, with Spotify to come for music.

So what impact has it had? Virgin Media says 25% of channel views through the new set-top boxes did not originate from the Electronic Programme Guide. What’s more, there is evidence that the box’s search function is boosting a long tail of shows: half of the ten most searched-for shows were not in the top 50 most-watched chart from industry ratings service BARB.

Shows like Dexter (the seventh most searched-for) and Fringe (10th) air on digital channels FX and Sky 1 in the UK rather than the bigger terrestrial channels, but Virgin Media says its search function is ensuring word-of-mouth buzz around them is generating a sizeable audience.

More data was provided in the Virgin Media Entertainment Index, including the fact that 79% of all TiVo boxes were used to access an app, and on average each box launched apps 4.5 times a week. The company hasn’t said which apps were most popular, but we suspect the BBC’s iPlayer and YouTube will account for much more of this usage than Facebook or Twitter; both apps that people tend to use on smartphones or tablets while watching TV.

Actually, the company isn’t ignoring that trend either. In July it launched its Virgin Media TV Guide app for iPhone and Android, which works with the new boxes. People can browse the TV schedules and set recordings remotely. An iPad version will be released later this year along with a software update for the TiVo box which customers hope will fix some of its launch bugs.

Virgin Media is just one of many digital TV providers to have realised the potential of new discovery tools, TV apps and second-screen mobile services. Expect to hear a lot more about all three areas at MIPCOM this October.

Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian, Music Ally, Mobile Entertainment and the Sunday Times. He also writes a daily email newsletter – The Appside – about how entertainment companies and brands are using apps. A sample issue and signup details can be found here.

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Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, and a regular contributor to Music Ally, The Week Junior, and more... including MIPBlog :)

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