On TV’s maniacal rush to the second screen

IPAD_PRODUCT_01_revThere’s a lot of foaming-at-the-mouth happening in the television business over the “second screen” phenomenon, which basically refers to the fact that lots of people are messing around with smartphones and tablets while watching TV. In a gleeful and unabashed manner that only happens when people sniff the scent of really easy money, TV network executives and app developers are running amuck on the Internet and at conferences describing a new golden era in which they effectively get to double their business because now there are two screens on which to get paid for placing content and advertising, not just one. It’s as if a benevolent bird of media paradise has dispensed from above a hot, steaming gift of such value and possibility that executives almost can’t believe their good fortune.

What’s amusing and telling about the state of exultation happening is the tidy presumption on which it rests, which is that simply because two things are related – in this case a big video display screen and a smaller video display screen – the business case surrounding the two is effectively the same, and the participants that are primed to make money off that business case are effectively the same. In other words, if you make a living by placing advertisements on the bigger screen, it stands to reason that you ought to be able to make the same sort of living by placing advertisements on the smaller screen. Or, adopting the TV industry’s other revenue mantra, if you charge a fee to supply programs on the bigger screen, you certainly ought to be able to charge a fee to supply programs on the smaller screen.

You get the logic, right? It’s just like television, and we’re television people, so it’s our game to play and win. Even the colloquial name for the medium – the “second screen” – establishes the pecking order and the semantic framework for calculating the marketplace at hand. Calling something a “second screen” makes allowance for the idea that there must be a “first screen,” and suggests a neat symmetry between the two.

Research! There’s research!
Of course, there are researchers scurrying to set the map. Among them is Nielsen, which releases regular updates about a new consumer behavior known as “simultaneous viewing,” or the habit of looking down from the television to scan the content appearing on a mobile device, then looking back up at the television, then looking back down at the tablet, then looking…you get the idea.

The latest such pronouncement indicates that – brace yourself for a big, frothy opportunity – fully 40 percent of us, at least in the U.S., engage in this very behavior daily, according to Nielsen. A more to-the-point survey from Accenture (here’s the .pdf) says that not only are many of us using another device while watching TV, but we’re usually using them for something that’s related to what’s on TV. (Color me skeptical.)

You can practically see the EVP of Business Development, having digested this news with her morning coffee, barking at her assistant to clear the calendar, rally the troops and begin taking big, satisfying bites from this low-hanging avocado of opportunity. A second screen? Are you freaking serious? This is a handout from God! This is the love child product of a one-night stand between Technology and Entertainment! This is golden! Get Les Moonves on the phone now! Whether I work for him or not!

The pricking of the balloon, though, starts with the immediate fallacy of pairing up screens 1 and 2 in a biz-dev scenario. First, think about the bigger leap to logic represented by the Nielsen data.

So 40 percent of us use a smartphone or tablet while we’re watching TV? It certainly seems game-changing. But what makes it seem so is the unstated presumption – a sort of sleight-of-mind trick – that leads us to believe this so-called multitasking behavior is extraordinary. That had we not a miniature TV screen tucked in the palm of our hand, we would otherwise be devoting our full attention to the display appearing on the screen that lords over us from 10 feet across the room, nodding our heads soberly while taking notes about the fine print associated with the Cialis commercials and jotting down reminders to watch the show being promoted by the network. That absent a second screen, there is television, and nothing else, that commands our attention.

Is this really true? Is the phenomenon of doing something else while watching TV so novel, so new and so without precedent that it begs us to pursue an emerging and archly monetizable human behavior? I don’t think so. I think there are lots of things we do while the television set is on. It’s just that nobody happens to measure them. Maybe we should start, just to add some perspective to the “multitasking” fuss. I hereby commission Nielsen to conduct a detailed analysis of the coincidence of Watching Television While Eating (WTWE). The headlines should be startling: “Nielsen WTWE Study Finds 54% of Americans Engage in Digesting Food While Viewing” or “New Chewership Findings Open Door for Ad-Supported Eating Platforms.”

There is also the little-studied anthropological phenomenon of Talking While Watching Television. Based on my recollection of a conversation recently while watching Episode 1 of HBO’s “Treme” over Apple TV ($2.99) with my wife, it goes like this:

“Wait. Is that the detective guy from ‘The Wire?’?” “Which guy?” “The other guy’s father.” “The guy who was in New York playing in the jazz club?” “Yeah. His father. Isn’t that Lester?” “Who’s Lester?” “The guy from ‘The Wire.’ The other detective. The guy who made the little miniature houses.” “Oh! Lester! Yeah, that’s him.”

This, too, seems like a tailor-made opportunity for monetary exploitation, but television executives seem to be overlooking it. Why can’t we connect the dots on this one? If 84% of television watching occurs while people are occasionally conversing, can’t we charge a fee – a small one, and certainly one where annual rate increases don’t exceed inflation – for talking about the shows we’re airing? It is our content, after all, and the fact that people are mashing it up into live conversation suggests there’s value being left on the table. Particularly inventive executives, if only they had the proper research foundation, might come up with ways to extend advertising presence into these live conversations. It is not such a stretch, is it, to imagine that conversing with one’s spouse, partner, child or friend while binge-watching an episodic television program could be construed as a personalized form of content? And if it is content, after all, isn’t it our job to monetize it? There are legalities involved here, people, and we are going to protect our copyrights, because a) that’s only fair and b) we had a pretty lousy first quarter and something’s gotta be done.

The other challenge to the second-screen as TV-extension argument has to do with a related assumption, which is that tablets and smartphones are waiting…waiting…waiting to assume their true calling in life, which is to serve, as this Business Insider article describes, as “a TV companion device, allowing for added levels of interactivity.” For example, we give you the new FoxNow companion TV app. In a recent (nicely done) report about second screen TV apps by nScreen Media‘s Colin Dixon, this companion app is described as a resource for offering “bonus content (that) can be anything from a different camera angle to an opportunity to request a coupon for Pampers in an on-TV ad.”

That’s fine, it’s inventive, it’s trying something new. But it doesn’t get to start its life in a fresh, pristine and uncluttered environment. Are we going to stop using smartphones and tablets for the things we use them for – text messaging our mothers, trolling for online dates, playing Angry Birds, checking the Dodgers-Diamondbacks score in the 5th, laughing at snapchat photos, pretending not to have noticed urgent work-related emails with that obnoxious red exclamation mark – and instead lock in specifically to “added levels of interactivity” associated with a TV show that until now has seemed reasonably entertaining all on its own? Or better still, we are going to suspend all the satisfying stuff we do on tablets and smartphones to snag Pampers coupons?

Not picking on Nielsen here – the company is only responding to the burbling fascination with this whole supposed medium – but rarely does research about second-screen simul-usage tell us what people are doing on their tablets/smartphones when they’re watching TV. Lots of people and lots of companies – Zeebox, Miso, HBO, Fox and many more – hope that people want to embellish their television experience by going deeper into content with a second-screen app. And yes, some of it’s cool. What HBO did with its “True Blood” companion app, offering live Tweets from actors during new episodes, was cool. Maybe a really inventive app that offers a more “immersive experience” really will win. But I gotta warn you: the chance to download a Pampers coupon isn’t going to make anybody stop playing Words with Friends while watching “New Girl.” Companion apps for TV shows are generally very, very demanding of viewers. In my experience, they violate an abiding premise of narrative television, which is to lose yourself in a story. They’re as annoying as they are interesting.

Slow down there, partner
I can hear your brain kvetching already that research does tell us a good share of social media conversation does happen to be about television. This is the “digital water cooler” argument. I get it. People like television. They occasionally Tweet about it. But that doesn’t mean you get to intrude on the conversation. One of the reasons conversing about television through social media channels is appealing is because it allows fans to participate in television on their own terms, without feeling manipulated by the corporate designs of network suits. Trying to lasso this organic human behavior into something owned, controlled, guided, influenced or directed by the television-technology complex is going to be very difficult.

My advice: Respect the experience. Tread gently if at all into the world of second-screen companion TV applications. Resist the temptation to exploit your audience. Put your utmost resources into great storytelling first, and be mindful that viewers aren’t exactly begging for things to do on their smartphones and tablets. Your second screen app has to compete with an entire world of personalized, customized, self-directed conversation and interaction. It has to be willfully downloaded, selected and used. It has to create more urgency and excitement than laying down a triple-word with a J in it on Words with Friends. I think that’s going to be really hard.