'What Did I Miss?': TV Attention Suffers A Big Hit From Second Screens

“You’re not watching, you’re iPadding,” is the common lament in our living room now. My wife will respond to something on the TV screen, hoping I will chime in, only to find my nose buried in the iPad or Galaxy Tab. “You’re not even here,” she complains. And she is right. As much as I love the BBC “Sherlock” series running recently on PBS “Masterpiece,” I am going to have to watch them all again -- probably using my PBS iPad app while on my aerobic stepper. No kidding -- that is where I can focus most and best on media now. The living room is just a horror show of distractions.

Switching focus from device to TV becomes so tiring and disorienting that at times I just give up on the main screen altogether. A lot of the richer, content-dense TV programming we are getting these days may actually be too good for the evolving circumstances of TV viewing.

Researchers at Hill Holliday have found in some very early and tentative work that the level of distraction from TV screens by smartphones and tablets may be even more severe than some suppose. While not a rigorous field test of living room behaviors, they worked with SecondScreen Networks to develop a one-screen simulation of two-screen behavior. Six hundred viewers worked with a player that carried two video streams, one in a larger TV-like window and the other in a smartphone-sized window.

In the TV window they ran "Saturday Night Live" sketches broken up by pods of TV advertising. In the TV window they ran segments of movie trailers, including one for the film “Friends with Kids.” The smartphone showed a stream of static images, one of which might include an ad also for “Friends With Kids.” They tested for people viewing TV without a second screen, people viewing both screens without a synchronized second-screen ad prompt and for people viewing two screens synched. The full outline of the research is at the blog by Ilya Vedrashko, who heads R&D at Hill Holliday.

Not surprisingly, people watching only one screen had 17% higher recall rates and 12% higher preference rates. The presence of a second screen not only diminished the visibility of TV content but even affected likability. When a second-screen ad was synchronizes with the ad on the main TV screen, however, recall bounced up somewhat by 8% -- but preference rebounded considerably, by 17%.

“We have to look at this with cautious optimism,” Vedrashko tells me, because the research is more directional than definitive. He sees the source of the problem as also as a potential solution. “The mobile phone provides another source of distraction.” In fact, it is important to keep second-screen distraction in context. The Middletown Media Study, which helped intrigue Vedrashko about the role of mobile phones in the living room, showed that attentiveness to the TV in a living room is eroded by many things. Almost 29% of daily TV viewing minutes are accompanied by other activities, from talking and texting to attending to or talking with others in the room.

But when it comes to mobile phones and devices, he argues, “for the first time it gives us an opportunity to correct for it.” The second-screen ad, if it supports in some way what is going on on the first screen can reconnect the viewer to the message and retrieve them from distraction.

Obviously, we need tons more research on TV distraction and the actual ways in which people are using devices during TV time. The first run of research told us that many, many people are using devices while watching TV, but we still don’t know or appreciate what people are doing and the level of distractedness it incurs. My personal experience is that we are looking at a considerable drain on attention. Hill Holliday analyst Rob St. Louis cites the overall cost in attentiveness that comes from task-switching. “When you switch attention, your ability to focus overall decreases,” he tells me. “So the sum of your attention is less than the sum of its parts.”

To wit: shortly into “Sherlock” I realize that the effort required of catching up this densely packed series is overwhelming. I decide to focus on the second screen. Part of folk culture around TV is that irritating family member who leaves the room for ten minutes, comes back in and demands that you catch them back up. “What did I miss?” Imagine that happening to one self repeatedly between two screens. Multitasking is a misnomer. We really only focus on one thing at a time, and the process of task-switching is exhausting.

This becomes even more interesting as we contemplate a truly two-screen world where both programmers and advertisers have to adjust to the reality of second-screen distraction. While companies like Hill Holliday and SecondScreen -- which does multi-screen ad synchronization -- surely want to make the case for synched ads, the implications creatively are great.

The remote control introduced new patterns of content and ad creation over 20 years ago as everyone stayed aware that people impatiently bailed from the boring. Recapturing people from second-screen distraction will have to go beyond a synched ad. “We may have to rely more on auditory cues,” suggests Vedrashko. If we know that people have heads bowed over a second screen then programming and ads may want to use the audio channel that still is present for the non-viewer to draw them back. St. Louis speculates that we may need to make the ad creative more quickly and easily understandable to keep engaged during the ad pods rather than using them as a signal for an email check.

Vedrashko suggests that some current children’s programming may already have some of the cadences and patterns that more adult programming will require in a two-screen world. Short attention spans and limited loads on focus are assumed with these audiences. “It is designed with this dynamic in mind.” “Blue’s Clues” was among the first to design around the research insight that kids needed lulls and breaks from high attentiveness in order to do something else and then come back to a TV focus, he says.

Hmmm. It is all speculative for now, but the introduction of interactive devices into the living room surely will be as disruptive to the TV medium as anything that came before it. It is hard to image a future where second screening is not a part of the sensibility that goes into programming. While it may not mean that all TV programming takes on the rhythms of “Blues Clues,” the problem of programming and advertising into deeply divided attention spans is worth considering. Parents lament the relentless re-viewings of Disney DVDs and the fiftieth screening of that Cartoon Network favorite. Repetition is such a part of childhood media consumption that one wonders if it becomes a part of distracted adult media habits. After all, here I am having to watch “Sherlock” twice in order to get it.

There is, of course, an upside to the second-screen distraction that none of us may have seen coming. It makes it easier for one family member to tolerate programming that would have been insufferable without the reliable distraction of a second screen.

“Want to catch up on your ‘Doctor Who,’” even though I find just about anything SyFy offers pretty much unwatchable. My iPad has made it possible for me to sit through evenings of ‘Doctor Who,’ ABC’s “Once Upon A Time” and a relentless run of risible romantic comedies whose titles I erased from memory before they even started. Here is a phenomenon for TV dweebs to ponder. Will second screening make really good programming harder to watch and mediocre or irrelevant programming (for any particular viewer) easier to tolerate?

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