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Forget second-screen apps. Today, the TV is the second screen

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Recently I had a great discussion with a friend of mine from Germany, who told me that TV networks over there are slow to embrace the future of television. Some of that has to do with local regulations and the difficulty to secure content rights, but a lot is also based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how people watch TV.

“They all talk about second screen apps,” he said, only to take out his cell phone and add: “But this is my first screen.”

The idea of the second screen apps has long been embraced in the U.S. as well, with networks building companion apps for their favorite shows, social TV startups offering chats and check-ins on the second screen, and others trying to reinvent the programming guide. Some of these ideas are actually pretty good, others don’t work at all — but the second screen buzzword itself is not just wrong, but dangerous. It lets us to believe that the giant TV screen in the living room is the center of the television universe. That wasn’t true in the past, and it’s much less so today.

Let’s back up a little bit first. Americans watch a lot of TV. The typical American watches anywhere between 2.8 and 4.8 hours of TV a day, depending on whether you believe Nielsen or the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But a lot of that TV viewing has long been low-attention background consumption, and programmers know this very well. The morning show, music television and the continuously looping headline news are all made for running in the background while people eat their breakfast, clean the house or do any of the other things you can do while the TV is on.

And with technology becoming more of a part of our daily lives, this development has only accelerated. Nowadays, people regularly check their emails, browse their Facebook (s FB) feeds, chat and do all kinds of other stuff while the TV is running in the background. The TV has become the second screen, meant to provide some additional entertainment while important interactions are happening on our mobile devices.

old TV

Sure, there still is must-see TV. The shows we really love and that are good enough to capture our imagination and keep us from checking our smart phone notifications for 25 or 50 minutes. The movie we watch with our loved ones during family movie night. The big games played by our favorite teams.

But there is plenty of TV as well that just isn’t that important, while there is plenty of social interaction that is. And depending on our mood and the posts in our Facebook feed, we may even fluctuate and switch back and forth easily. We’re pretty good at multitasking at this point, after all.

So what does that mean for the producers of all of these second-screen apps? First of all, lose the buzzword, because it prevents you from understanding how people really interact with TV. You’re not building apps for the second screen, but for a multiscreen world.

Secondly, that means that apps should — carefully — embrace all screens. Not to annoy viewers everywhere, but to give them options on what to consume where, and in which context. Microsoft’s (s MSFT) Xbox One and its idea of the app sidebar seems promising in that context. Opera is working on similar things for its TV SDK.

But finally, and that may be the most important point: Get out of the way. It doesn’t make sense to reinvent Twitter and Facebook (s FB) for the second screen, or any screen for that matter, because people are just fine using Twitter and Facebook, and only more so while watching TV. The best new apps will be the ones that provide additional utility without trying to monopolize a screen that TV viewers already use for something else.

Multiscreen image courtesy of TV image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user joe.ross.

13 Responses to “Forget second-screen apps. Today, the TV is the second screen”

  1. While it’s true there’s currently a distinction between which screen plays second-fiddle, I think we’ll see them merge in the future. Interaction during the show will happen literally alongside programming, say with live tweets controlled by a tablet (basically here) or video feeds among friends watching a show collectively, but in different locations (this is not far off). This won’t be limited to an XBox app sidebar, nor will it have to happen on a TV screen itself. It’s more about content: programs will develop a “long tail” of fan interaction with pre-and post-show programming that makes it effortless for the audience to interact with each other, the content, and the sponsors. We’ve seen how crowdfunding puts the audience at the heart of the production process (Zach Braff, anyone?). It’s particularly relevant with regard to the expansion of a la carte offerings and increasing opportunities to give viewers their own screentime. Interacting with stars, producers, and other fans of their favorite shows reinforces the audience’s bond.

  2. Trevor Doerksen

    TV is #1 because unlike other technologies that we embrace the audience is less fragmented. 63% of Americans are watching in primetime this compares to the 16% of us that are twitter users. No technology, not even a website or an app, not even an iPhone or Samsung galaxy reaches mass audiences like TV – period. This is why TV is the first screen.

    Ok, play a little game here I like to call what’s it like. TV and gigaom do share some things in common. What would it be like if gigaom followed the author’s advice about facebook and twitter. Gigaom would not need a website, app or conference series, they could just let Facebook and Twitter provide news and information and , of course, generate ad revenue instead of gigaom.

    What would it be like if we followed the author’s advice about plenty of TV not being that important. What is this like. It’s like saying a whole lot of people don’t find gigaom that import. So why bother putting a website together and a companion app and conference series. Who would care?

    Now, the authors notion of second screen meaning that mobile is second place to TV. If you follow the money, TV is the first screen by far. Ok, the term second screen is not that useful (totally agree with the author on this point), but if you take ad revenues from all digital screens (computers, mobile, etc.) and add them up around the world and then double them they start to compare to the ad revenues from TV screens in the US only.

  3. Jim Carls

    If the television show you are watching isn’t written well enough to keep your attention on it the entire time it is on, you shouldn’t waste your time watching it. If it is that good, then a second-screen app is nothing but a distraction that will ultimately take you “out” of the story and miss some of the content you took the time to watch. And, holy cow! the idea of routing a Twitter feed into your TV is just nuts. It’s bad enough that cable channels are putting advertising “bugs” into the corners of your screen.

    Ultimately, most people will realize that second screen apps are going to be by and large a negative, except in certain niches were they might make sense. But I really doubt that Fox News viewers will be buying fact-checking apps to run while they watch that channel.

    • Joe King

      Oh, and I supposed to assume all CNN-, NBC-, ABC-, and CBS-viewers alike are utilizing fact-checking apps then? … oh, that’s right, they never hear the news anyway.

  4. Janko, either you are mixing things up here, or it is a matter of perspective.

    IMHO, FB/Twitter would never qualify as “second screen” apps. My definition of second screen apps is: Apps that *are* native to TV being available on a second screen. Of course, here am assuming that TV is the first screen. So apps that can enhance your TV experience – by for example, moving the EPG app to a tablet, thus not polluting the TV real-estate. Or allowing you to schedule a recording on your TV/PVR at home, from your mobile phone (remotely). Or even allowing you to stream a TV program to a tablet at home (ex. in the bedroom), so you could move around the house while still watching TV…these are second screen apps (from a TV perspective).

    Porting a native mobile/tablet/PC app to a TV (with all the constraints a TV imposes) does not make it a second screen app – it is at best a sales gimmick. In my view, Skype on TV is one such.

  5. The statement that your Phone is your ‘first screen’ is quite ludicrous when referring to the world of Television. Notwithstanding the strain on the eyes for most people, the fact that you might receive a phone-call in the middle of your TV show/Film seems quite a strange way of using such a device for viewing. A “Fit for Purpose” discussion crops up here. There seems to be a desperate need by society to use new tiny telephone devices for purposes they were not really intended for just because they can – not because they should. Tablets on the other hand that are not used as telephones make some sense as screen size grows (Oh yes they are getting bigger) … Another is Tablets used as Remote Controls also a ludicrous idea – Yes you can and it is OK until the tablet leaves the room to the kitchen or bedroom to be used to look up a recipe or homework… (yes they are mobile and we don’t all have one each) and they not paired/strapped/tied to the TV. Apps on TV can work but Yahoo widgets failed – Screen Clutter! The TV is the Main Screen – Everything else is an add-on, complimentary addition to or a companion device when it comes to TV Apps.

  6. Think of it this way. The apps these companies are working on are a way to get viewers to spend more time with their content. More time with Conan means less time with Leno. Oh yeah and ad $. Nothing silly about this thinking or strategy, except maybe the name – agreed.

  7. Pablo Armesto

    Endemol & FremantleMedia makes Interactive shows For SecondScreen Screen intencionally. This is the important For the multimedia tv Industry.

  8. It’s already way beyond naming this or that screen as first or second. It’s about TV adjusting itself to where viewers are and what kind of content they are watching. For Mondial 2014, for example, the first screen would definitely be their mobile device during lunch break – as this is when they’ll be watching a football game taking place in another time zone. At Applicaster (@applicaster we’re about giving that choice to our customers and to their customers, the viewers, you and I.

    with content as the core TV offering, we ask ourselves – where is the viewer and what kind of content he or she is watching? according to this the screen role and functionality should change. at some cases, it’s content delivery mainly, with some offline availability and informational meta-data based features. In other cases it’s a talent show or entertainment show where users expect and want to play along the living room TV screen, and so on. It’s all about TV and how it fits our diverse lifestyles and viewing habits.

  9. Watching the evolution of the television medium has been exciting to say the least. Being that many digital natives consume media on their own schedules, I’d be curious to explore the analytics deeper. Very interesting insight :)

  10. The only second screen app I’ve used is the Conan app. I was impressed that it worked even with a DVR delayed showing, but it was not interesting enough that I used it more than twice before deleting it from my tablet.

    Somewhat related to this topic, I hope TV gets Twitter feeds off the TV screen. People interesting in Twitter have Twitter elsewhere. I must say though that I am impressed with Twitter management making that practice so widespread (unless maybe they are paying for that).