Social television and the second screen

I confess that I don’t watch much television, mainly because of lack of time, but also because to unwind I actually prefer to curl up with my iPad and tap and swipe my way around the Internet ( is dangerously fascinating). So imagine my interest when I discover that there are many, many more out there like me (hi!), and that some innovative TV shows are including the smaller screens in their storytelling.

By that I don’t mean trying to get us to watch the shows on the iPad (although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind). They want us to have our tablets or phones in our hands while we’re watching the show on TV. They’re developing additional content, complementary visuals, ways to connect with others also watching, and, yes, they want us to divide our attention between the two screens. Welcome to multi-screen entertainment.

walking dead second screen

The idea is that, in grabbing our attention on two levels simultaneously, and in feeding our peripatetic quest for more stimulation, faster, they get us even more hooked on the show. According to a 2013 Nielsen survey (Yahoo and Razorfish surveys produced similar data), as much as 80% of tablet and smartphone owners say that they use their device while watching TV, for checking email and/or social media sites, and for looking up information. What got the TV executives (or whatever they’re called these days) sitting up was that half looked up information about the TV show they were watching, which shows a surprising interest in “going deeper”. 20% spent time simultaneously reading social media commentary on the show. Almost 15% said that they watched the show because of something that they read on social media.

Now, even though these figures don’t show a majority, they are enough to make the show developers drool. Imagine, all those people caring enough about your show to spend time and energy talking about it online! Yes, we do that with family and friends after the show anyway, and maybe at the office or gym. But with people we don’t know? During the show? It’s not only the “hearts and minds” part that marketers fantasize over. It’s also the possibilities of viral marketing for the show itself. On creating a buzz around watching a show with dual-screen content, the relatively solitary act of watching TV becomes social.

watching tv with a second screen

The situation gets even more interesting when we look at it from an advertiser’s point of view. The audience for TV ads is dwindling, as more and more of us watch “delayed” shows, that is, we record it and watch it at our convenience, or we use a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon. Do you know of anyone who, given the chance to fast forward through the ads, would voluntarily sit and watch them? (True, some ads are excellent, but again, I would rather watch them when and where it suits me, not the channel.) The social aspect of two-screen viewing, with the possibility of chatting with other fans as the show is being broadcast, or even of chatting with the show’s producers or actors, could encourage more people to watch “live”. And to prevent them from getting up to get a drink or go to the bathroom during the ad break, the show could “continue” on the second screen with additional content, behind-the-scenes, interviews, quizzes or contests… The second screen is the antidote to delayed viewing.

Several networks and individual programmes have launched apps to deliver an integrated social experience. And over the past few years a flurry of startups has emerged vying to catch the second-screen eyeballs. Tvtag (previously GetGlue) and Beamly (previously Zeebox) are among the leaders in terms of shows and users, and the previously-in-parenthesis in both cases is due to each being purchased for undisclosed sums, after raising a significant of venture capital. As in, there seems to be significant economic potential in this concept.

Defiance game and show

And, creatively speaking, there is huge scope. The crossover potential is so much more than just chats and information. Defiance, a futuristic Syfy channel series about an alien invasion, was launched very soon after the Defiance game hit the market. It’s not a show based on a game, or a game based on a show, the two were developed simultaneously. The characters and storylines cross over, and the free-to-play game is continually updated to reflect plot twists. The gamers keep playing, because there’s always something new. And they watch the show. Going in the other direction, the series fans might try their hand at the game, which they will probably come back to often, because there’s always something new.

The functionality is also creative. Some apps show replays of sports events, exclusive interviews, contests… “New Girl” ran simultaneous relationship polls and offered quotes from one of its quirkier characters. “Grimm” now comes with an e-book. “The Vampire Diaries” app lets viewers capture screen shots and add captions to share with their friends.

Scandal tweets

The drama series Scandal doesn’t have an app, but is one of the most-tweeted-about shows on air in the US this year. Fans, celebrities and even the show’s producers and actors chat away about the episode as it is happening. Slate magazine’s Willa Paskin once tried to reconstruct an episode just from reading the tweets – it turns out her version was pretty accurate. (“Can I watch Scandal by only reading Twitter?”) Smart brands can also get involved: on one particularly tense episode, during a scene in which the main character is desperately clutching her usual glass of wine, Seagrams Gin tweeted:

Seagrams Gin tweet

That was retweeted almost a 1000 times. Effective and very low-cost marketing. The second screen is a fertile field for marketers, not only with tweets and good timing, but also within the apps. Some audio-sync episodes and show ads your tablet or phone that relate to the scene, or show an ad for the same product that is being advertised in the ad break, but with a direct tap-activated option to buy. More immediate, more measurable, and with considerable scope for creativity.

As Scandal shows, the programme-specific apps are perhaps not necessary. Ever since Twitter emerged, fans have been communicating on that micro-chat platform with each other. In fact, Twitter was the trigger for the “second screen experience”, the original, basic engagement tool. Fans would tweet away during a show and during the ad break, too, finding each other through the show’s hashtag (such as #BreakingBad or #Suits). Jokes, theories, questions and comments from Twitter users found an audience with other Twitter users watching the same show, and made the viewing more fun. I confess to getting annoyed when people I’m watching with talk over the dialogue (I’ve never been able to figure out how they can follow the intricacies of the plot when they miss out on chunks of the action because they’re discussing the previous scene!), but “listening” to others by glancing at the screen does add another level of interest to the show.

With live events, the chatter is even more relevant and interesting. Sports, awards ceremonies and talent shows tend to unite people eager to chatter. Twitter invites you to live-tweet opinions, facts and jokes that make you feel like you’re sharing the experience with a room full of friends. The broadcasters also get in on the act by tweeting “inside information” (and ads) and by responding to some of the audience tweets. It’s participatory, it’s entertaining and it generates program/event/brand loyalty.

In all of the conferences that I’ve been to recently, I see a similar phenomenon, with people listening, tweeting and reading simultaneously. Surprisingly, it’s more stimulating than distracting, and often the synchronous activity on Twitter is almost as entertaining as the actual talks.

And here’s an interesting development: you don’t need to be watching live anymore to participate in the social aspect of the second screen. Your tablet or phone can audio-sync to the program, detect which show and episode you’re on, and link you up to the appropriate chat group, fan page, fact centre… The chat may not be live (or, depending on the size of the audience, it may be, there are probably others somewhere in the world watching at the same time, whatever time that is), but it’s still participation.

Obviously not all television viewing will be “disrupted” by the second screen, at least not for now. But the concept does deepen our relationship with what we watch. Many have proclaimed that the rise of the Internet would lead to the death of television. But it turns out that it’s actually saving television viewing, by helping it shift from a passive medium to an interactive gathering. Second-screen viewing, by adding layers of information and social interaction, gives dimension to the flat screen. The creativity, humour and sense of community that the “new” channels provide are leading to a new concept of programming, in which the audience participates, influences and takes care of a large part of the marketing. As with interactive ebooks and digital art, television programmes are adapting to the new media, and generating a new form of entertainment. Yet again the content adapts to the medium.

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