Yesterday, articles about two different network executives speaking at industry conferences hit my Twitter feed within maybe an hour of one another. While both focused on the topic of second screen viewing behavior, they each took very different stances on whether they were viable to their business. ABC told the audience they were a distraction and not to expect future experiences for their episodic content while Viacom stated the apps were viable to a successful broadcast viewing strategy. It struck me as odd that two industry executives could have such a differing opinion on the topic – especially on the same day. So which network is right? I actually believe both, to some degree, are correct.
ABC didn’t seem to have an issue with the suitability of second screens with reality shows, sports, or game shows, something I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree. ABC also went on to state they had no interest in pursuing future second screen initiatives with regard to episodic content citing they were a distraction to the viewer, hard to monetize (both mentioned this point), and that customers weren’t interested in receiving contextual information based on results from their own app usage. It is in these claims where I find mixed levels of agreement and believe their abandonment of second screen apps to be a bit premature.
While the debate among psychologists has waged for decades on whether focused yet divided attention is a better means of absorption, there have been plenty of studies to show solid evidence that brand/ad recall is significantly higher when reinforced across platforms. Even if the user is distracted during a multi-screen environment, recent studies have shown that those users are more engaged in show programming and consume more show related content across platforms. In the case of “The Voice”, that increase in consumption was almost two and a half times that of a non-multiscreen user. With higher ad recall effectiveness when presented across platforms and deeper levels of consumer engagement with a show when multi-screening is used, the lack of ability for near term full monetization should in no way constitute a reason for discontinuation of a product with so much potential.
Where I do find myself in agreement with ABC is in their stance that second screen contextual content for shows “was interesting to viewers, but not essential.” If you look at the current state of most second screen experiences, this is very much a true statement. Most of the apps today are designed with the mindset that second screen experiences are nothing more than places where trivia and opinion polls alongside DVD-style bonus production photos and information are presented. In this case, yes it is interesting for fans, but certainly not essential to viewing.
The problem is that, in general, the second screen has not continued to evolve over the last few years. When ABC first launched the “Grey’s Anatomy” second screen app it was considered revolutionary and fans flocked to it just to check out that contextual content, but that interest waned over time. Most networks today are still either trying to catch up to simply get to this base level contextual dual screen experience or they have continued to play in the same limited area for a couple of years. The Showtime SHO Sync app, which was recently nominated for an Emmy, is proof that a nice UI to frame up a series of opinion questions is enough to be regarded as a premium industry example. This is great for winning awards, but as a user I found myself bored with answering these polls repeatedly and abandoned the app after a single episode viewing. Even apps that mix up the types of content displayed like Falling Skies on TNT and Defiance on Syfy, both apps that I enjoy using and like, are somewhat difficult to want to continue to utilize week after week.
Not only do the majority of apps have a problem with the types of non-essential content, many simply try to replicate and replace the functionality of popular conversation apps like Facebook and Twitter. Sure they will stick a Twitter feed inside an app for added social TV convenience to check it off the list, but if the app isn’t building value around that conversation feed (and even helping users curate that feed with tailored conversation options), then it is much easier for a fan to just open a Twitter client instead of network built experiences.
Why are network apps for shows that fall under the serial, procedural, and sitcom umbrellas having a hard time with creating experiences that viewers find essential, instead of simply interesting? I believe this has a lot to do with not only siloed organizational structures at the networks, but also the paradigm taken regarding what a second screen app should be and how that content is assembled. Network marketing teams are generally piecing together second screen content long after production has finished and are doing so from content given to them by the on-location staff as well as stills/videos taken from the final episode products themselves. A couple years ago, when second screen behavior and the buzz of the social TV revolution was in its infancy, this piecing together of content after the fact was perfectly acceptable when networks were still testing the waters and show-runners weren’t fully aware of the potential. Now is the time for networks to move beyond this low hanging fruit level of second screen experience development. Transmedia extensions should no longer be an afterthought when production ends, they need to be planned from the beginning so that the storytelling process itself is altered to create non-linear extensions that will enhance the show. Networks will likely have to break down siloed marketing and production teams to create hybrid roles to serve as owners of this mutual collaboration creative development process. We are now in a new world of entertainment that simply cannot thrive in the traditional network organization architecture.
The networks that plan for transmedia experiences in advance with show-runners where both sides work in tandem to create unique and engaging storytelling in non-linear multi-platform environments will be the organizations who unlock the true potential of the viewer. If they can accomplish this, they will find someone that isn’t distracted. They will discover an engaged fan that doesn’t just look at these multi-platform experiences as auxiliary and interesting, but finds them essential to the story narrative. When these viewers find other platforms just as critical as the primary viewing experience, monetization of those additional screen destinations will naturally fall into place. Why? Because the audience will be there.