Forgive the first person pronoun in the headline, but television is the most emotive of subjects.

Not for nothing does the Simpsons use the TV set as a cultural trope. Perhaps the emergence of broadband and the creative decline of the Simpsons is more than correlative?

Anyway, I don’t dispute the second screen phenomenon, not one bit. I use my phone whilst watching TV all the time.

What I am disputing, outside of a few important examples, is the extent of consumer demand for contextual second screen experiences. Within this disputation comes the assertion that a lot of second screen use is indeed not contextual (aside from social media use) and cannot therefore be ‘monetised’ as such.

Of course, fans of the second screen may point out that the reason second screen usage isn’t yet contextual is because second screen services and apps are nowhere near maturation yet. There may be improved uses and better content to come.

I’d argue that the same problems that beset social advertising (a place for branding but not sales) will ultimately beset the second screen, driven as it is by the demand for socialising whilst watching the box.

See if you agree with my devil’s advocate’s views.

First, a definition

A 2010 BBC R&D project adopted this working definition of a second screen

Second screens are a class of applications (or devices) that are designed to be complementary to TV watching or radio listening by displaying content that is contextual and synchronised to what is showing on the primary screen whether that is live or on-demand.

The second screen may be completely passive or it may allow interaction with itself, the primary screen, other people in the same room or even wider social interactions. Ultimately second screens could communicate with other second screens in the same domestic environment.

The attention deficit

Three in ten Americans say they do something else while watching TV (30%) and only 14% say they do not do any other activity while they watch TV according to Harris Interactive.

According to Rovi Corporation, 85% of people who own a second screen device use their devices while the TV is playing.

I would argue that these stats suggest three trends.

  1. Actively watching TV whilst also actively doing something else e.g. ironing.
  2. Losing interest in TV, whether in the content or an advert break, and taking up another activity.
  3. Exploring some element of the TV programme via another medium, usually through phone or tablet.

Trends two and three are subtly different here. Both are likely to occur on a smartphone or tablet, but only trend three is contextual with the TV content.

In fact, although reports of second screen use range from 24% to 67%, according to Rovi, only 14% of activities on a second screen device are related to what is playing on the TV, according to Ericsson’s Consumer Lab.

And of course, although this is still a very big phenomenon, a large amount of this contextual second screen action is predominantly social.

                     ironing

The paradox of additional content to a second screen

Defenders of second screen apps and services would argue that the real benefit comes from serving the right content to the second screen.

This isn’t adverts or even advertorial (as much as we love it) but additional or bonus content, similar to the BBC’s ‘red button’.

The ‘red button’ is popular but mainly to switch between content, not as contextual enhancement. One could argue this is one use of the second screen, to make sure that if a viewer loses interest in the TV programme, rather than switching to another broadcaster, they can stick with the current one but on another device.

As an example, one could be watching a talk show, lose interest but want to explore more content around the last interviewee or one of his or her talking points.

Usually, however, the rationale for enhanced content served to the second screen is increased engagement with a show, as well as the ability to promote other services. For example, you’re watching a talk show interview with a movie star and choose to see a trailer on your tablet simultaneously.

There are use cases here that sound as if they will work, however there is a paradox involved. Television is about consumption, leaning back (aside from sharing on social). When TV is good, why would a viewer want to access additional content simultaneously? Yes, there are uses, but is the demand great enough?

There is certainly demand for content, just not, in my opinion, simultaneously. Second screen usage will ultimately reveal what TV watchers want from the experience of watching the box.

                   second screening

The problem with opting in to shopping

I’ve perhaps been disingenuous, the user doesn’t just want extra content or the ability to socialise, they quite possibility want to buy things they see on TV.

If One Direction appears on screen, why shouldn’t you receive a notification to your second screen app allowing you to purchase a new single?

Here the difficulty is in getting the user experience right. How to stop advertisers and broadcasters bombarding the second screen? How does a ‘lean back’ experience become ‘lean in’ when the user wants it to? The answer here is obviously to have a fairly unobtrusive notification of additional content.

That sounds workable, but again an issue arises. Users will have to decide when to enable a second screen service, so they will have to decide before or during a TV programme if they want to be given options for further content.

If the TV is good, it’s possible users will not want the distraction and will turn off additional content, however discrete the calls to action are. Won’t there then be crossed purposes between advertiser and broadcaster, or is this par for the course? Should ‘bad’ television be inherently more valuable to advertisers?

Betting may be one second screen use that is taking off, though of course at the moment it is unlikely to be contextual. However, this could change as technology does. 

Pesky problems with social

There’s no doubt that social rules second screen activity. It’s fast becoming one of Twitter’s USPs.

If demand for context is also demand for socialising, then the same problems that social advertising has encountered will rear their heads within second screen services.

Trying to monetise a second screen app based around social interaction will be difficult. Mainly because Twitter and Facebook already have the audience and partly because audiences are resistant to advertising in a social context.

In this case resistance to ads in a second screen app doesn’t just mean ignoring them as you would on Facebook, but potentially shutting the app down and ignoring the second screen experience if it is seen as distractingly commercialised.

Embracing duality

In short, I think the problem is that second screen experiences, aside from social, will not be able to succeed unless the broadcaster embraces the concept and develops experiences ideally suited to two screens.

After all, many broadcasters successfully entreat viewers to phone in and vote, to tweet in etc.

Perhaps viewers can be encouraged to vote via second screen apps instead, or answer along to a quiz show for example.

The X Factor app example is the most successful, it’s had more than 0.5m downloads in the UK.

Search and discovery: the big opportunity?

Enriched programme guides are perhaps one of the main opportunities for the second screen (and perhaps more usually the first screen?). These EPG apps are used by 5-10% of the UK population, far higher than comprehensive second screen apps like Zeebox (though Zeebox does have an EPG as part of its app).

With TV being watched more and more on-demand, there is an opportunity for more editorially led second screen apps that allow the user to control the TV, perhaps browsing magazine content and then deciding to launch a programme.

There are already many out there, often from publishers looking for new revenue models, for example the Radio Times app.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think. In this post I’ve been looking at a report by Technologia, prepared for Ofcom, which gives a comprehensive overview of the second screen.