Brow Beat

How Viggle Pays People for Watching TV

The logo for Shark Tank on ABC

A couple of months ago, I confessed that a few sheets of stickers were all it took to tweak my TV viewing habits. An app called GetGlue shaped my TV diet by rewarding me with decals: Since some of the GetGlue stickers were more attractive than others, I spent time evaluating every night’s potential scores, a process that reminded me what was on TV that night. The rewards were small—about one and a half inches in diameter, to be precise—but somehow they were enough to affect my behavior (at least a little).

I still check in to GetGlue and watch the mail for my stickers, but lately I’ve fallen under the sway of another TV app: Viggle. Viggle, whose slogan is “Watch TV. Get Rewards,” styles itself as a “loyalty program.” Just as flying on Airline X or shopping at Supermarket Y might earn you a free plane ticket or a complimentary Thanksgiving turkey, Vigglers accrue points that can be exchanged for premiums. Viggle is currently offering gift cards (for Starbucks, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and so on); a free month’s subscription to Hulu Plus or Spotify Premium; and large-ticket items like a Kindle Fire or a MacBook Air. You can also use points to make donations to charities (such as the National Breast Cancer Foundation or the Boys & Girls Club of America).

Unlike GetGlue, Viggle doesn’t operate on the honor system. Using software that seems similar to the music-recognition app Shazam, the app—currently available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch—identifies the show the user is watching and awards points according to how long she sticks with it. So if you check in at the beginning of a half-hour episode of Suburgatory, you can earn 30 points; an hourlong drama, like my current favorite show Lost Girl, will rack up 60 points. If, 10 minutes into an episode, you decide that you hate it or realize you’ve already seen it and stop watching, that total is knocked down to 10 points.

Although I’ve encountered occasional problems, for the most part Viggle can recognize any TV show from the last seven days. Seven days’ worth of 24-hour programming on around 225 channels is a lot of data to manage, but the app coughs up the correct answer in just a few seconds. Pausing the show doesn’t confuse the app (nor does it earn you more points—drats).

As of today, Viggle is offering $10 on iTunes for 18,000 points. At one point per minute, that means, say, 300 hours of Revenge. Which sounds daunting; after all, in 2011, the average American watched a mere 34 hours of television per week.

But every day a few featured shows carry bonus points. Last night, you could earn 100 bonus points for checking in to Rookie Blue, 200 points for Duets, and 300 for So You Think You Can Dance. A few shows also allow users to play along with Viggle Live, which poses trivia questions—usually about what happened on the previous episode—that can lead to extra points. While watching last week’s two-hour episode of Glee, I earned 225 points by answering Viggle Live questions, a 225-point featured show bonus, and 98 points for watching (I checked in a little late). A few big scores like that will earn you the 9,000 points required for a $5 Starbucks gift card relatively quickly.

And in a move that reminds me of the early days of the commercial Internet, you can also earn points by looking at ads. Watching a commercial for an upcoming movie or a cell phone can bring in as many as 100 points, and you can watch them more than once. (I know because I’ve done it—though watching and rewatching Battleship commercials did not increase the odds of my seeing that film.)

In other words, this app has gotten me to do things I haven’t done since I got my first TiVo more than 10 years ago: watch ads and live television. I’ve also checked out shows just for the bonus points, and occasionally—as with last week’s Shark Tank—gotten hooked.

The strange thing about all this is that I’m not doing it “for the money.” I’m lazy and not currently poor: If a guy were handing out crisp $5 bills in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t walk more than a couple of blocks to get one. And I’m not spending all this time gaming out an iPhone app in frenzied pursuit of a Banana Republic gift card. I’m just one of those people who likes to meet the strange challenges that only computers can throw down: clearing all the unread stories on my RSS feed, doing the most Foursquare check-ins at my local bodega so that I earn an imaginary mayorship, achieving all the QRANK awards. When I mess about with Viggle, it’s because I want to rack up points. And if they offer to turn those points into books, lattes, or tunes, well, it would be rude not to take them up on it.