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Second Screen: The Future of TV, or The Latest Sign of Our Shrinking Attention Spans?

By Zach Wigon | Indiewire October 11, 2012 at 11:18AM

Maybe it should be expected that TV is embracing socializing instead of discouraging distraction. So while some may view the current developments in second screen TV apps with surprise, the truth is that they're really a logical continuation in the direction the medium has always pointed toward.

The idea of second screen apps providing a second channel for storytelling isn’t new, especially in light of the current interest in transmedia filmmaking, which is built around the idea of telling stories using multiple platforms. But while transmedia films, like Lance Weiler’s "Pandemic" or Tommy Pallotta’s "Collapsus," ask viewers to engage with many channels of narrative, they don’t ask them to do all that engaging at the same time. With second screen technology, a new barrier is crossed into what some might call the War Against Attention Spans. Wiewers will be asked to pay attention to two channels of narrative information simultaneously, like clicking back and forth between two tabs in one’s internet browser.

While TV is not set up to be as attention-commanding as watching a movie in a theater, you could argue that the most captivating moments of TV-watching -- a Presidential address, the finale of a beloved series, a breaking news story, or just a great episode of a regular old show -- can be captivating because the audience is willing to hand over its full attention to these programs for a period of time in place of a gift, of sorts, from the program -- a new piece of information, the pang of feeling real empathy, the thrill of seeing the world from a different perspective.

You have to wonder, if second screen technology becomes a new status quo for TV viewing, if a certain guardedness to those kinds of experiences are going to be built up among viewers. How much of ourselves will we give to a program when we don’t even have a complete self to give? The setting of your living room creates a certain casual air to TV viewing, but when you considers that some of the best moving image narratives are currently playing out on the small screen, it behooves us to ask: if we were learning about how the aurochs were made on our smartphone or had the option to buy a prop from the film while watching "Beasts of the Southern Wild" in a theater, would it detract significantly from the experience? If it would, how would this significantly differ from being distracted from an episode of "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men"?

'Mad Men'
Michael Yarish/AMC 'Mad Men'

Tech blogger Cory Doctorow said that “The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies…” -- that is to say, the various applications and programs that are always just a click away, often blinking and beeping on our monitors whenever a new message or alert comes in. Nicholas Carr explained in his book "The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains" that web usage is rewiring our neural pathways so as to make us less capable of prolonged, sustained thought on a specific subject, while making us more attuned to the idea of switching back and forth between various different topic.

This is how the internet, with its capability for a limitless amount of viewing windows, has been built to operate. What’s interesting is that the way our brains are being reshaped by the structure of this new technology is forcing purveyors of older media, like television, to change the structure of their devices in order to keep with how we use the more contemporary technologies. What remains to be seen is how TV -- currently, you could argue, the site of the best storytelling in America -- will be affected by this adaptation toward newer modes of viewer use. Either way, the success or failure of second screen technology will tell us an awful lot about what viewers want their TV-watching experience to be.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, transmedia, Michel Reilhac, Shazam, Zeebox, Second Screen, NBC, HBO

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