Tell Me A Second-Screen Story

We have been telling stories to one another for several millennia, but it is only in the last 200 years that we have seen technology radically reorient how we tell stories. One argument is that nothing fundamental has changed about narrative, but that technology simply heightens and focuses attention on one aspect of traditional storytelling. Outside of interactive gaming, most media are still reliant upon linear story arcs, character, author-driven thematic concerns, etc. Different media along the way such as film, radio, television and even cheap paperbacks have helped new genre variants to emerge like formulaic fiction, situation comedy, serialized stories, etc. On the whole, however, linearity and authorial control are still bedrocks of storytelling.

In the last 30 years we have played around with interactivity as a way to more radically revise the structures. Even before Internet technologies and digital, cultural phenomena like fan fiction, ritualized midnight movie showings ("Rocky Horror Picture Show"), and youth-oriented Pick Your Adventure fiction suggested that there was an audience yearning for greater involvement in reshaping the artistic experience -- participatory narrative. Which is to say that digital media did not invent interactivity so much as it was shaped and given direction by a culture already pressing against a century of being relatively passive audiences for mass media.

Fast-forward to the arrival of portable digital screens in the living room that just beg for some kind of connection with that sacred “first screen” that dominated the last half of the last century. We have already seen Twitter emerge as one channel of choice among users because of its simplicity, brevity, user control and general lack of intrusiveness with the first-screen experience. After several years of ambitious second-screen apps, however, it remains an open question how much audiences want formal parallel content in the living room.

We already know that different TV genres invite different kinds and levels of interactivity, with reality TV and competition genres leading the way. A new study from the research consultancy Latitude also reminds us that there are multiple audience types that need to be considered as well. In its ongoing and serialized research, the company has identified four major viewer types (albeit representing a continuum), each of which has very different needs and types of involvement with stories.

To oversimplify, there is the Seeker who likes a lot of back story and detail, tends to be female and over 35, but doesn’t necessarily want the ancillary content to intrude with the core narrative while viewing. There are the Relaters who skew younger, tend to be extroverted, like to deeply identify with characters, and are very interested in sharing their views about content, using social media and making deeper emotional connections to characters. There are Realists who expect stories to lead to tangible benefits, including personal growth or ideas for living better. And then there are the most highly interactive of viewers, the Players, who will do things like create fan fiction and play games around a particular story or even become a character.

Like all such categorizations, these are interesting conceptual frameworks rather than buckets to fill with audiences. But they invite the programmer to think harder about the different types and levels of interaction that a user would want from a second screen, if any at all. For instance, the Seekers want more content but they don’t necessarily want it immediately in ways that undermine the core narrative experience. A second-screen experience for this type of viewer probably should occur later with tools that push or to further content after the broadcast. The Players, on the other hand, are probably more likely to want to drive the narrative itself and even choose endings or inhabit a character through a second screen.

The Latitude study suggests a number of creative possibilities, some of which we have already seen and some worth considering. It asked its sample base what sorts of things they would like to engage with on the second screen. Some, like the Relaters and Players, like interactivity of all sorts -- with characters, the story and even other fans. These viewers may very well want a second screen that allows them to encounter the story from a chosen character's perspective. In fact, 87% of all of the people the company surveyed like the idea of getting an enhanced view of the story in one way or another like seeing events from a particular perspective. This is an intriguing concept, because it allows the second screen to complement the omniscient narrator with subjectivity.

A great many viewers in the survey -- 91% -- said they would enjoy stories that had real-time worlds that continue to live through things like text alerts and other messaging even when someone was not viewing them. The possibilities here are staggering in terms of revising our usual notions of artistic story. In this case, a story actually could be taking place and evolving in real-time when we are not viewing it. The showtime itself could feel more like a hyperrealistic dropping in to family or friends whose lives go on without us most of the time. In this vision, manufactured stories become closer to a parallel universes.

Latitude also explores the ways in which brands can integrate into these richer narrative occasions and how much viewers themselves are ready for branded content that feels more like their entertainment. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed said they would be interested in advertising that told stories about products and how they came to be and 29% wanted advertising that felt more like “normal content” they ordinarily would engage. And 73% of people said they were interested in discovering real-world products or services at relevant points in the story.

As intriguing as I find this sort of work, I also believe that people say they want things that ultimately they don’t use. And when it comes to radical innovation in storytelling, my guess is that we are more lean-back then we would like to think we are. One of the enduring pleasures of art is that at its best it puts the viewer, listener, or reader in someone else’s coherent construction of the universe. We are always interacting on some level -- even in supposed “passivity” -- simply because we are sentient beings. Twitter works so well as a second-screen medium because it is merely extending a living room chatter activity that has always been there. Whether audiences really want to move to another level of narrative engagement and interactivity remains to be seen and tested probably for a long time to come. But it is best to remember that there is no single monolithic audience even for that last bastion of mass media, TV. Digital media allows us to find and address a multiplicity of viewerships.

The full Latitude study is available here.

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