Summary:

What if your iPad knew what you were watching on TV? What if web sites automatically displayed ads that corresponded to commercials you’re seeing on the big screen? Second Screen Networks is demoing this kind of synchronized advertising on this week’s American Idol finale.

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As millions of TV viewers tune into tonight’s American Idol finale, some viewers might find that their iPads seem to be watching the show as well. The Idol fan site AmericanIdolNet.com will display a number of banner ads that directly react to commercials shown on TV, asking viewers whether the Ford commercial on their TV screen is convincing enough for them to buy a new car.

These synchronized web ads have been developed by Second Screen Networks, a New York-based startup that aims to monetize TV-related interaction on laptops and mobile devices. Second Screen CEO Seth Tapper told me today during a phone conversation that he wants to build something like a DoubleClick for the multitasking environment that is today’s living room. There’s good reason to do so: Just last week, Nielsen said that 70 percent of all tablet owners user their devices while watching TV. And late last year, a study found that 86 percent of mobile users access the Internet on their device while watching TV.

Second Screen now wants to cash in on this trend by giving web publishers the ability to present ad inventory that’s relevant to the ads shown on TV, which will in turn drive higher CPMs. The company is entering a crowded field, with social TV apps like IntoNow, Miso and GetGlue as well as technology providers like Synchronize.tv all trying to capitalize on the second screen.

However, Second Screen Networks takes a different approach than some other companies: Its servers ingest a number of live TV feeds and match up any commercial shown on these networks with an existing database of identified TV commercials. Tapper told me that it typically takes 0.25 seconds to match a commercial and deliver the corresponding web ad to the browser of someone visiting the site of a participating publisher.

Of course, that still involves making an educated guess about the content someone is watching. AmericanIdolNet.com will display these synchronized ads to everyone visiting their site tonight, regardless of whether they’re actually watching the show at that moment in time or not. Second Screen Networks is dealing with time zone differences by bluntly asking visitors of the site whether they’re getting to see this or that commercial on their TV at any given time. Tapper thinks that social TV apps could actually play a role in “locating” viewers by signaling what they’re watching. However, he remained skeptical about whether audio syncing, such as that deployed by IntoNow, made sense beyond this single check-in. “It’s simply not feasible for every single commercial,” he said.

Second Screen’s approach also doesn’t work with on-demand content, but Tapper said that most of the social second screen activity happens around live content or content watched in real time anyway. He could be onto something with this observation: People tweet their souls out while watching Glee and Idol live on TV, but they don’t seem to care as much about topical interaction when catching up with shows on Hulu.

Tapper said that his company has been working on this technology since September. The ads shown tonight are still unpaid prototypes, but the company has already gotten some great feedback from advertisers who want more accountability and direct feedback for their TV commercials. And for many, it’s not that much of a leap to have web ads align with their broadcast campaigns, since most advertisers already use TV for brand awareness and digital to get a direct respone. “All digital campaigns are meant to sync with ads on TV,” Tapper said, “just not at the same time.”

However, getting the ad experience on the second screen right will be crucial, said Tapper. “Slowly but steadily ads on the web have become more intrusive,” he explained. Making sure that doesn’t happen on the second screen is one of the reasons why his company wants to start a dialogue with all the app makers and everyone else involved to establish new standards for second screen advertising. “We need to find out what works in this space,” he said.

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