Commentary

Second Screening Works Better When The First Screen Sucks

"What is that weird sound?" my fiancée asked during our Facetime chat on Oscar night. "Are you paying attention to me?" Well, yeah, kinda. I was in San Francisco for OMMA Global and having to do my usual Academy Awards night monitoring of digital coverage. She was hearing the bloops from People.com's second-screen trivia contest. But there were also multiple voices coming from the iPad and the TV.

"How many computers did you bring with you?" she asked. Well, there was the laptop running Oscars.com and People.com, the iPad with ABC Oscar's Backstage Pass app and the iPhone checking tweets and some gossip feeds. "Okay when we are married, you go to a hotel on Oscar night," she said. For her the key benefit of Facetime has been my undivided attention. Multitasking is impossible and any sideways glance is a dead giveaway. Attempts at second screen programming might take a lesson from this. Multitasking is a bit of a misnomer when you are trying to "complement" a TV screen.

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 The touch interface and the video preview modes in the Backstage Pass product were superior to the Web interface. About eight camera positions on or off were available to the second screen viewer. The Host cam was the hosted parallel production that had designated talking head hosts. Generally, they were doing color commentary and directing the users occasionally to where else the action was among the cams.

The pre-show programming was actually much more interesting than the programming during the televised show. Kudos to the Academy for this. They actually had some very informative mini-documentaries and talk-throughs of categories that brought richer understanding of the nominees and explained categories and nominees one might have overlooked.

The problem comes as things go live and too many screens of such uneven quality start running at once. Multiple camera views make sense when no single view is truly demanding full attention. The Fan Cam showed the cheering crowds. The Fashion Cam showed the celebs as they showed off the duds, which presented similar views to the Paparazzi Cam. In both cases you heard photogs screaming celeb names and saw flurries of strobes and poses. Although there was too much air time of empty red carpets and meandering handlers, there was a least a sense of party excitement to it all. But there is no getting around many of these views being as exciting as security cams.

An Announcer Cam included interviews with attendees, although I always seemed to catch it when more minor members were pulled in for interviews. It is good to know that Louis Gossett Jr. is still around, but how much does he have to say, really?

 And too many of the cams both before and during the show were truly gratuitous and demonstrated that more is less in these second-screen endeavors. A cam on the lobby bar and the champagne tables was a waste, too dim to discern anything. In total, the pre-show app experience was fun to follow because I wasn't distracted by the first screen. Moreover, the activity itself was party-like, so bouncing from screen to screen was pretty much like changing views on a party.

Personally I have never been a great fan of piling on multiple cam views. I think the frenetic control room metaphor that is supposed to give users the sense of being their own director is over-valued. I truly believe that most consumers really do want a more limited set of choices if those choices are genuinely valuable.

To ABC's credit, the network literally mapped the camera views, for both pre-show and in-show experiences. The map interface showed the user where the cams were placed and gave the user a real sense of being in that space.

But this same more-is-less approach got terribly distracting during the show itself. First, as a viewer I pretty much had to choose which audio track to run as the foreground to the experience. Generally, I shied away from the narrated Host Cam because it just felt like having two loud chronic talkers in the room as you were trying to watch the show. 

Trying to keep one eye on the main screen and on the multiple cams was just too overwhelming. My tendency was to use the second screen mainly during the ads, and I wished that the other cams had worked more on a DVR method where key video moments were saved for later use.

What this second screen really still needs is an editor to anticipate what is likely most valuable to the viewer and save those moments for later review during a lull in the main screen. I did most of my second screening during the commercials, which is not necessarily a dynamic that ABC itself wants to encourage.

At the same time that I was fielding all of these ABC/Oscar streams I also dropped in on People Magazine's synchronized trivia contest that was going on in tandem with the TV experience. Here the experience was more editorially directed and discrete. On an HTML5 page optimized for iPad and well-suited to Safari and Chrome, the user played rounds of trivia games that were relevant to the awards or presenters on screen. The editors also fed interesting tidbits of trivia as a set of occasional pop-ups.  

While I couldn't keep up with the contests, the best part of the design was its relatively unobtrusive nature. You didn't need to be fully engaged in the trivia contest to get a good experience, since each question led to an answer. The user could just let it run in background and glance at contextually relevant embellishments of the program. This approach was more of a sidebar approach to the main programming. It was forever conscious of the main screen being the main attraction. The ABC All Access approach challenged the  

By the end of Oscar night, admittedly running way too many parallel experiences, this second screener felt simply exhausted and wondering if the massive parallel programming efforts from ABC really gave me much more of an enriching experience than People did with a much lighter touch?  

"Who is that who just won?" my beloved Facetime companion asked of that other actress for "The Fighter" who nabbed the prize. 

"Hey. wait," I protested. "You're not paying attention to me."

"You have five screens to keep you company. Stop whining. What the hell is that woman wearing?"

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