My daughter is always buzzing. I for one am used to the background hum of her friends tossing SMS messages at her throughout any movie or TV show. My partner, who is still learning to hit Send on her new cell phone, doesn't get it. "You people and your phones. Why don't you watch the movie?" My nose is deep in my mobile bookmarks, testing sites and catching up on headlines.
"Actually, I like this movie," I tell her. It has long stretches where nothing essential happens -- good for multitasking." With second and third screens available, you develop a new sense for when relevant drama is about to strike. I pull my head up when Anne Hathaway winds up to emote.
Unwittingly, my daughter and I are exploring our own new ways of using mobile as a second screen. The relationship between the biggest and tiniest screens in the living room is going to be one of the most interesting areas of mobile evolution in coming years, I expect. I doubt any singular relationship will develop. I think there are some times when simul-casting will make sense. I enjoyed having the contestants in one season of "Top Chef" send me SMS messages during the telecast with background gossip on the characters. And sports has already benefited from predict-a-play mobile extensions of live games.
VH1 has a new mobile app called "Watch and Discuss Live Chat" in the App Store that lets its viewers drop into ongoing chat sessions around the on-air show. This is interesting, because it productizes a habit that is already abroad, one-to-one texting during a show about the show. My daughter occasionally reads to me comments that her friends text to her about something we are watching concurrently in our own living room. I am not sure about a model that restricts us to one cable channel, however. I am sure there are "VH1" brand lovers out there, and that this group is very important to the company. But I suspect a third party would give us a greater reach that maps better against our viewing habits. This would seem to me a great opportunity for the nascent digital video hubs like CBS's TV.com, TVGuide.com, or NBC/News. Corp.'s Hulu to make a mobile mark. They are fetishizing TV watching in their own ways, so why not offer a mobile app that allows live chat across the network and cable brands, too? This might prove more lucrative and effective than simply mobilizing their current video services.
Another approach to third-screening is creating a new mode of interaction apart from the telecast. The TV brand that helped launch SMS in the U.S. market, "American Idol," rolled out a new iPhone/Touch app last week with Zumobi. In addition to feeding up to 76 exclusive-to-iPhone Idol video clips and a "Buzz" section of news updates, the app has a fan service element. Users can drag and drop the final 13 into ranking slots that are actually time-stamped. Apparently, predicting the voting outcomes is a bid deal among Idolistas, so you need proof that you called it right ahead of time.
"From a marketer's perspective, this is a proof point of mobile apps as an entertainment experience," says Cindy Spodek Dickey, vice president of marketing at Zumobi. "It is not a novelty or a one-trick pony. It is quality content with a really engaging experience designed and developed for the mobile community."
As we have said here before, a branded app of real value to users requires a serious editorial commitment from the maker. iPhone-specific video was shot for the "American Idol" app and persistent news is fed into a very efficient interface that zooms in and out of the sections.
Zumobi and "American Idol" are enjoying the benefit of full Apple support on this. The app was featured on the App Store deck catalog and in iTunes from the first day. Sitting at number 15 among the most popular paid entertainment apps, it is not killing the charts, however. But this is a case where Apple has a vested interest in the success of the app. There are hooks within the app itself directly into the iTunes music store for on-the-spot purchasing of all the "Idol" tracks and performances. This is one of the more powerful aspects of the applications model, having the ability to push people so seamlessly into multiple revenue streams. Apple shares the revenue with "Idol" production company Freemantle Media. The app is also a platform for brand partnerships, which Zumobi is trying to sell. Plus, the app costs users $1.99. It is rare to see any digital property exercise all three of the major available revenue streams at once, but this is one of the ways that a powerful TV content property can drive such a model.
Curiously, the one obvious thing that is missing from the American Idol app is the most fundamental to the relationship between mobile and the brand: SMS voting. You can't vote for your favorite directly from the app? Go figure. The VH1 and "American Idol" apps are just scratching the surface. The relationship between the biggest and littlest screen is fascinating terrain because the creative possibilities are staggering here. Imagine having the ability to personalize the TV viewing experience in so many ways via a mobile screen. Sure, tandem usage with laptop and TV screens has been going on for years in living rooms, but usually one person controlled that screen, and the online activity sometimes seemed too ambitious. Mobile screens seem to me portable, personal and ubiquitous in ways that make them better, more reliable second screens. This is a place where the limitations of mobile can be an asset. You don't want the activity on the second screen to overwhelm the action on the first, but you want to modulate the interactivity.
But let's not overlook the market and creative possibilities of building longer pauses into our entertainment mix to allow for double-screening. Imagine if future film and TV production adjusted to the reality of multitasking during long boring bits. David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick could experience revivals. In a standard Kubrick flick, you could triage your BlackBerry in-box just in the time it takes to slow-zoom into a scene. I am telling you, look for that "Multitasking Approved" sticker on your DVD or in your download store in five years. "Barry Lyndon: The Mobile-Friendly Edition." "Dune: The Watchable-At-Last Cut."