One of the most fundamental media behaviors of the last century, TV viewing, is facing one of its most daunting changes with the introduction of ubiquitous connected devices into the living room. There are a lot of caveats to the knee-jerk presumption that “second screens” change the game for TV programming. Foremost, TV viewing rarely took place without some distraction in the first place. Before my tablet became a prime-time fixture on the high arm of my easy chair, there had been a stack of magazines and daily mail. Conversation among my chatty wife and daughter ensured that most time with a TV set was spent without the theater-like one-screen focus too many media pundits presume when discussing the second screen “revolution.” People always lived in the “living rooms” where they watched TV. Smartphones and tablets did not invent divided attention spans.
What's daunting to TV programmers is the incredible interactivity and engagement possible from the touch screen devices that are now competing for attention in the living room. And according to research presented this week at the OMMA Video On Devices Conference in L.A. by GfK’s Ben Theriault, it's a toss-up who gets these eyeballs. GfK’s research shows that most consumers are using their devices to travels as they will online and without much regard for what the TV programmer might want.
To wit, among those who are multitasking during TV viewing, 50% of tablet owners and 42% of smartphone owners say they use the Web browser during programming, and 42% of tablet owners and 49% of smartphone owners are managing their own social nets (Facebook, Twitter, messaging). Only between 23% and 25% of second screeners are looking up information about content they see on TV, and even fewer (16% of smartphone users and 11% of tablet users) are responding to an ad by going to relevant online material. To be sure, some marketer may regard these stats as a glass third full, since capturing even 15% of a device-wielding TV viewing audience has got to be considered a win. But the marketing fantasy that somehow viewers are simply waiting, device in hand, for a good reason to visit a marketing Web site is just that, a fantasy. This will take some artful work.
Likewise, it is going to take work on the part of both TV programmers and third-party app makers to bring viewers into a second screen embrace. GfK found that only 12% of smartphone users and 8% of tablet users typically run a TV app while watching content on the first screen. In fact, despite the high profile of network apps for "Walking Dead" and Conan, or third-party apps like Yahoo’s IntoNow and the new UK import zeebox, 70% of tablet owners say they rarely or ever use TV apps while watching TV. The overwhelming majority of device owners (70% tablet, 79% smartphone) say the availability of a second screen app for a TV show makes no difference in their likelihood to watch the program.
But again, absolute numbers are not the best indicator of the power of the second screen, because this is a game of incremental gains and recapturing important slices of the audience. Those 8% of tablet owners and 12% of smartphone owners using TV apps to turn TV into a dual-screen experience are most likely a show’s core constituency and the ones most likely to use the social sharing tools. And TV programmers will want to get their content into this device ecosystem as soon as they can regardless of its interaction with the first screen. GfK’s demographic breakdown of device use found that 22%-23% of Gen-Y users already considered their viewing of TV material on the smartphone or tablet to be replacing their regular TV viewing. As more people use time-shifted viewing on their devices as an in-home portable TV, the second screen will become the new first screen.
There's a reason we call handheld media “personal” devices. People do invest smartphones -- and to some degree, tablets -- with a degree of intimacy and ownership rarely seen in other media. It's a mistake to think second screeners can be very easily corralled back into the TV programmer’s embrace. There is a sort of liberation and rebellion attached to engaging with a second screen while the first is on. To be sure, social exchanges across this second screen are highly personal and an antidote to the one-way direction of the TV content. But any content provider or advertiser hoping to recapture those distracted eyeballs on the second screen had best remember that there are usually good reasons why the viewer is distracting herself from the TV.