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

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

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.

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.”

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”?

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.

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