"Wait a minute, what are you watching on that thing?" my wife asks as I pop in the iPhone headphones and appear to be leaning back -- while she watches an on-demand episode of "Dr. Who" on the big screen in our living room.
Actually, I don't even know if I have been busted or not. What's the new etiquette in a world of ubiquitous and multiple screens in every room? Now that the smartphone and tablet have added to the pile of available displays, if my wife is watching one thing on the family TV, is it rude or wrong of me to watch something else on one of my displays in the same room? For those of you who don't think I am as dumb as a bag of hammers for even asking such a question in the presence of my wife, read on. I am about to find out.
"I thought we were going to watch what I wanted to watch for a while?" she says.
"We are. 'Dr. Who.' It is your show. We have established already that I have a mutation of the geek gene that does not favor sci-fi. You, on the other hand have the standard strain of geek gene that finds Data on 'Star Trek: Next Generation' sorta sexy. We've been though this."
Yeah, I am as dumb as this.
"But WE are not watching 'Dr. Who.' I am watching 'Dr. Who' and you are watching something else on your phone. What, by the way?"
"'The Wire,' on HBO Go. And CNN just to see that the Congress hasn't blown up the world yet." I didn't have HBO when "The Wire" originally aired, and the superb iOS app gives me everything HBO ever did. And now CNN has allowed authentication with my cable provider so that it can stream live on-air programming to phone or tablet. This is brilliant and long overdue, and I trust it pressures other networks to do the same.
In my use over the last few months, turning smartphone or tablet into an ancillary TV screen subtly changes my media consumption. TV programming is no longer associated in my mind with location but with need and desire. During the debt crisis, I would run CNN's live feed onto the phone or tablet on my desk while I worked. But I could bring it with me as I moved around, worked out or just shifted venue. And yes, I could bring it into the bathroom if nature called during breaking news.
Nielsen and the Cable & Telecommunications Association didn't ask specifically whether people were using their mobile devices to watch video in the bathrooms. But in the new study released yesterday on video app use, they did confirm what many of us had suspected: mobile video is going to have as profound an effect on home TV/video viewing as it is on on-the-go media consumption. The survey of 1,460 video app users found that 74% are using smartphone video at home (78% of tablet users), while 55% use it in the car, 47% to 48% outdoors, 47% while in line.
Chief among the CTAM concerns was whether mobile screens would cannibalize standard TV viewing. But 85% of video app users said they are watching the same amount or more of regular, scheduled TV. Apps seem to enhance rather than diminish engagement. Almost half of video app users say they are more involved with the programs or networks related to the apps they are using. CTAM also did the first take on synchronized second-screen viewing. With apps that are synched to specific TV programming, the users report being more deeply involved in the show, not distracted by the tandem programming.
None of which engages the more practical issue of how the age of ubiquitous screens somehow pans out in everyday etiquette. All of those people CTAM and Nielsen find using their video apps on waiting lines and commuter trains and buses had better have headphones, although we all know many of them don't. The MP3 player was a welcome antidote to the annoying boom box of the '80s and '90s. The smartphone is now the electronic irritant in many public spaces. Most of us really are not that interested in other people's personal media experiences. In this sense, the smartphone is both personal and public, and in ordinary use as a media device is likely somewhere between an iPod and a boom box.
In the home, where most of us are viewing mobilized video most often, yet another issue emerges: video viewing can become too personal. Clearly I took it too far in our living room and violated the moral nuances of shared video experiences -- or what we used to call "watching TV."
"We are not watching 'Dr. Who.' I thought we were watching something I wanted to watch as your gracious attempt to make up for the years of your video tastes we 'share' on this TV. If you watch something else on your phone, it is like you turned the remote over to me and walked out of the room."
I could make the case that the horse left the barn on this long ago, when laptops entered our living room years ago, when all of us started catching up on emailing and having text exchanges during prime time. Multitasking has already eroded any fantasy of the communal experience of watching TV. The issue isn't that TV has been brought out into the world, but that the world has been brought into the family TV room. If media has no firm sense of place anymore, then no place in which media experiences occur enjoy the sanctity of place they once had. This may be why the movie theatre will continue to have its special appeal even as our living rooms grow bigger, richer screens.
But even I am not dumb enough to make this argument out loud right now.
Instead I try the standard spousal ploy, counter-accusation. "But you outright leave the room when I put on 'Real Housewives of New York.'"
"That's different. It creeps me out that you even like that show. I can't stand them, but I really can't stand watching you watch them. It is just weird."
Long story short, I learned that watching another screen during family TV time is different from using a second screen during these purportedly shared moments of media co-consumption. For now at least, one crossed a line and another doesn't.