For as long as I can remember, the digital doyens at broadcast and cable TV companies have been trying to perfect the tandem over-air/Web viewing experience. Veterans of digital will recall the many projects from sports content publishers that used football game play prediction or color commentary on the Web running in tandem with the games on the big screen. In the last election cycle we have seen CNN and others graft Facebook discussions onto online simulcasts of big events and speeches.
In isolation, each of these experiments in "second screening" has been interesting enough, but I am not so sure they have become de rigueur. After all, while a lot of multitasking does go on in most living rooms, generally I think it does take the form of multitasking, not tandem-tasking. We have laptops running other tasks or general Web browsing tasks as we watch a program. Most of us are not necessarily looking for the Web connection to drive us deeper into the TV experience so much as provide that low-level distraction we now seem to need. ADD is American culture's baseline behavior.
Several TV executives have told me that they are hard at work on iPad apps that are expressly designed to enhance the TV viewing experience. The thinking is that the more personal and comfortable form of the tablet as opposed to the laptop will make second screening more likely.
Two apps emerged this summer that are good first stabs at this sort of thing. ABC Family's chatterbox app essentially runs the Facebook discussion live for shows like "Melissa & Joey" and "Huge." You can drill into specific topics about the show to discuss, or just watch the scroll of thoughts fly by. It is rudimentary second screening that pretty much aggregates and repackages chatter.
The more ambitious Bravo Now app is brimming with good ideas. In addition to aggregating clips and blogs from the Bravo TV Web site in a neat package, the app can host some of the most sophisticated examples of second-screen live-event programming I have seen. I used the app for the finale episode of "Bethenny Getting Married?" this summer. The dedicated page pulled in live comment feeds both from the public at large as well as a channel of "Bravolebrities," producers and even reality stars who were appearing in the program itself.
But what was most interesting about the app was the way in which Bravo seeded the experience with live multimedia updates. There was a timeline at the top of the page that showed our progress through the episode. At key moments, Bravo posted screenshots and video clips from the show as well as behind-the-scenes detail from the producers. The sum total of the experiment was rich and captivating. It underscored the need for programmers to program these experiences thoughtfully and actively in real time.
Social media is the current and fashionable digital hammer that makes everything look like a nail right now. That is, social complements to traditional media experiences are the first, obvious answer to everything. And this is all well and good. User-generated content is one additive element to the main-screen experience. It's better that we offload that stream to a secondary device in the living room rather than keep chasing that "interactive TV" demon that has been in the process of becoming for twenty years.
That said, it seems to me that second screening should not be left merely as a glorified Twitter feed. Bravo demonstrated in a rudimentary way that publisher content still matters here, and it would be good to see these second-screen programmers get outside the usual social sandbox when they craft tandem viewing apps. Polls, predictive games, complementary content, perhaps even alternative camera views to the on-air stream?
Sportscasters, imagine offering viewers on-demand instant replay on their iPads. The opportunity for sponsors to have persistent presence on the second screen throughout the on-air broadcast is compelling, opening up a host of possibilities for integration with the experience. Bravo, for instance, has never been shy about pushing the product placements in its reality shows. Imagine having deeper call-outs of highlighted products available in real-time alerts on the second screen.
As important as social media may be to the future of digital everything, there is more. The initial reflex of second-screen programs to emphasize the user-generated stream of content is natural and understandable. I just think there is an even greater opportunity here for programmers to shape multi-dimensional experiences that underscore their creativity and persistent role as the core generators of media value.