For Better or For Worse, Second Screens are Coming

By Chris Mills on at

Most of us are lazy bums with an attention span measured by an atomic clock, so we use a second device to occupy ourselves whilst watching telly. It's a dubious habit that's taken off big-time in the US, and now it's making firm inroads into our green and pleasant isle.

The state of second-screen play in the UK at the moment pales in comparison to our estranged relatives over the pond. Over there, a couple of networks like CBS, HBO and ESPN tend to dominate the airwaves, so they've got customised apps like CBS Connect that provide extra content. This tends to be a mix of out-takes, extras, and the grandly-named 'social content' that's actually just the results of a Twitter search.

Research suggests this is the sorta stuff we like. Numerous stats show that around 80 per cent of people use a second device while watching TV, and about half of that use is Googling stuff related to the show you're watching. Moreover, one in five people watching a show are simultaneously tweeting/Facebooking about it. (Which kinda sucks for the script-writers who've put so much work in, but hey, modern world and all.)

The idea of a dedicated second-screen app is that it combines those social and trivia-hunting aspects, allowing our new generation of multitaskers to 'enhance their viewing experience with a broader range of engageable content' or somesuch marketing crap.

For TV producers, second-screening is good because a) it helps people vomit TV-related crap all over their Twitter feeds, thus promoting the show for free, and b) it provides yet more pixels to serve you ads. Plus, of course, if you're enjoying a TV show even more, you're more likely to watch it, meaning that viewing figures graph goes up at the end of the month.

Despite all this goodness, however, the UK's a wee bit lacking in second screen apps at the moment. The closest thing we have is Zeebox, which is a generic one-size-fits-all second-screen app (though a very good one at that). However, we're lacking a more in-depth experience akin to the US apps spelled out above -- the sort of experience which, requiring such close tie-ins with the TV show itself, really needs the support of broadcasters to exist.

One of the broadcasters pushing quite hard into the app space is Sky. While the traditional British broadcasters -- BBC, ITV and Channel 4 -- are trying to one-up each other's video-on-demand services, Sky is pushing more towards curating a second-screen experience.

Their current testbed is sports. Obviously, Sky's known for its woefully expensive and fairly comprehensive sports coverage; the attempt now is to enhance that with better digital offerings. The Sky Sports app is the current flagship -- for pretty much every sport Sky shows, it has a digital interface, with different camera angles, highlight reels, expert opinions and enough stats to make the most ardent armchair F1 driver weep.

One area it's sorely lacking in is social media. At the moment, there's a 'curated' Twitter feed, and...nope, that's it. According to their mobile device guy, Tim Orme, that's due to concerns over 'insensitive' Tweet-wars between football fans spilling over into the app, and ruining some poor five-year-old's innocence. However, it's still an area of "extreme interest" for them, and one that they're pushing towards once they've got the legalities right (and drafted the "mother of all disclaimers", of course).

ESPN is the other player in the sports second-screen market. They've got a football-specific app that serves as something of a second-screen app, and are also looking at integrating more social media functionality into their streaming apps.

Still, if the US is anything to go by, sports isn't the only area second-screen apps will become absurdly popular. For example, the BBC has developed a second-screen app for Antiques Roadshow that allows you to guess the value of items, as well as spewing out useless facts about the late Victorian pottery being shown on-screen. Given the Beeb's talent for staying on the cutting edge of this new-fangled 'digital media' thing, it's fair to assume they'll be rolling out similar companion apps for other shows, providing the Antiques Roadshow one is a success.

There's also a more sinister aspect to second-screen apps. We touched above on the fact that they can carry extra ads; but ad execs are a creative bunch (if Mad Men is anything to go by), so they won't stop at simple banner ads. For example, Lancia recently ran a series of ads, where the audio from the TV activated an ad on a smart device, which is clever, sneaky, and damn annoying.

Furthermore, second-screen apps have a wealth of data on you: with your viewing habits, Google history and social media tie-ins, they're uniquely positioned to spam you with well-targeted ads on prime screen real estate. With the rise of on-demand and pre-recorded TV shows where you can fast-forward through ad breaks, TV ad revenues are set to take a big hit; second screens may well be where broadcasters try and make up the revenue shortfall.

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