Second Screen

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message, and his successor to the techno-ethicist mantle, Neil Postman, added that no medium or technology is ever really use-neutral. In the face of theorists who claim that technology is what we make it, Postman replied in his book "Amusing Ourselves To Death" that while a television could be used as a lamp, it makes a lot more sense to watch TV on it.

So maybe it should be expected that TV is embracing socializing instead of discouraging distraction -- watching entertainment in the privacy and comfort of your own home makes it more difficult to immerse yourself in the way that you can in, say, a movie theater. Since TV’s beginnings, audiences have been talking and yelling, reading and flipping, calling and answering their way through television programs. So while some may view the current developments in second screen TV apps through a prism of surprise – using a secondary device in the middle of my favorite show!? – the truth is that second screen is really more of a logical continuation in the direction the medium has always pointed toward.


Second screen apps -- for smartphones, tablets, and laptops -- aim to let viewers engage in a more interactive experience with whatever it is they’re watching. Let’s say you’re sitting down to "The Real Housewives of Miami" and become enamored with one of the stars’ dresses; your app could have an option for you to buy that very dress online, immediately. If you’re watching a drama and a key plot point from a prior episode is mentioned -- one you might have missed -- you could pull up text on your second screen to provide an explanation of those story developments.

There’s also a social aspect to these apps -- you might log in and check out which shows your friends are watching, as well as converse with them (and other viewers) about said shows as you screen them. Second screen isn’t so much a brash new innovation as it is a reasonable attempt to capitalize on a migration that's already happening. According to Anthony Rose, chief technology officer of Zeebox, a UK-based second screen app producer, 81% of TV viewers currently have a laptop, smartphone or tablet out in front of them while watching their programming. With this statistic in mind, it’s clear that second screen isn’t so much an aggressive new push for the TV industry, but rather, an attempt to salvage eyeballs.

Of course, these apps aren’t being produced from inside the TV industry, but that's about to change. On September 27th, NBC Universal and parent company Comcast announced that they would be investing in a minority stake in Zeebox, with plans to develop second screen content for 307 NBC shows. HBO is expected to be announced as a non-equity partner shortly. Other second screen developers (which are working without network support) include Shazam (which is most well known for its song-recognition app) and TVSync, which is itself a platform for other developers to join and create a wide variety of second screen apps.

The field is so new that there isn’t yet a model for what works and what doesn’t.

As of the moment, there's a broad array of app uses being discussed, as the field is so new that there isn’t yet a model for what works and what doesn’t. Zeebox has come out strongly in favor of two models for monetization: the click-to-buy tie-ins with onscreen products and parallel advertising, where TV commercials are doubled with more features and information regarding the advertised product simultaneously on the second screen. This makes sense for a number of reasons, among them being the fact that viewers seem most likely to be looking at their second screen during commercials. Additionally, a loss of viewership for commercials could lead to sinking TV ad rates.

Michel Reilhac, the Arte France Cinema chief who's soon departing to pursue transmedia projects, is working with a Paris-based company on TVTY, a second screen application. He acknowledges that the use of apps is primarily being driven by the desire for a new revenue stream, but also sees potential in creating new kinds of narrative.

“My hunch is that second screen technology is going to be used primarily for advertising purposes, just because it is the quickest way to monetize anything,” Reilhac explained via email. “On the basis of people getting more familiar with enriched content provided through the second screen, we will start seeing content creators and storytellers getting interested in using the technology to tell their stories in a multiple storyline fashion... I can bet that popular series will be among the first ones to massively spread the use of double screen storytelling techniques.”