A Firsthand Look at the 'Second Screen Effect'

Put down the remote, pick up your smartphone, laptop or tablet. Viewers don't just watch TV, they interact with it.

By Leah Rozen
Originally Posted On May 31, 2013

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Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.

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The average American home has at least two televisions. But that’s not what network executives and entertainment industry writers mean when they talk about the "second screen effect."
 
Second screen is the term used for the way we watch TV now: We’re tuned into the TV, but we also have another electronic device in our hands, be it a tablet, smartphone or laptop.
 
We’re using this second gadget to tweet about what we’re watching, post on Facebook or log onto a show’s website to chat with other fans while viewing an episode. Alternatively, we’re surfing the Web for relevant facts related to the show, like an actor’s previous credits or marital status or, if it’s a sports event, player or team stats.
 
Using a second screen is the modern, high-tech version of gabbing on the phone with a friend about how cute David Cassidy was while you both watched The Partridge Family at your respective houses back in the day.
 
We weren’t the only ones. Mashable reports there were 8.9 million tweets sent out during the red carpet pre-show and the Oscar telecast. First lady Michelle Obama was among those making a pithy, 140-characters-or-less contribution. “It was a thrill to announce the #Oscars2013 best picture winner from the @WhiteHouse! Congratulations Argo! –mo,” she wrote shortly after the ceremony.
 
Welcome to the virtual water cooler. Thanks to second screens, rather than having to wait until the next day to gather at the water cooler at work to chat about that key fumble during the Super Bowl, the latest plot twist on Revenge or a table-flipping fight on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, we can now analyze and discuss whatever happened instantly with friends (and strangers) all over the world.
 
The networks and big media companies are getting into the act, dubbing it “interactive TV.” American Idol is now asking viewers to respond on Twitter to questions posted on screen during the live telecast: “Do you agree with the judges tonight?” In January, fans of CBS’ Hawaii Five-O were encouraged to choose an ending for an episode by voting via Twitter and CBS.com.
 
Every network and cable channel now has a website and app, which are fast becoming interactive points of entry for second screen viewing. Typical is USA Anywhere, the app of cable’s USA Network. “Get real-time polls, trivia, quizzes, behind-the-scenes product content, photos, video clips and more!” it encourages users.
 
What does all this mean? For one thing, the era of the couch potato is over. If you want to be hip, you can no longer just veg out on the sofa, zombie-like. As soon as you turn on the TV, you now must check into GetGlue (a social site where you earn badges for noting which shows you're watching and commenting on them). Then you need to tweet and/or chat on Facebook while keeping at least half an eye on the TV screen itself. It's extreme multitasking, a far cry from the days of simply watching a show and giving it your full attention.
 
I am, of course, being facetious. (You have my permission to continue watching Downton Abbey without notifying the universe, if you so choose.) But I have found that watching favorite TV shows with an iPad or iPhone can actually be beneficial. Rather than using my second screen to check Twitter feeds or socialize on Facebook, I research what else an actor has appeared in, look up historical people and events mentioned in a show, check the definition of a word or consult a map to nail down the location of a city in the news. It makes me a more informed, smarter viewer.

Here are five sites that might be of special interest to Next Avenue readers curious about second screen browsing while watching TV:
  • IMDb The International Movie Database is the go-to resource for comprehensive credits for the work of actors and directors, as well as information on plots for movies and TV shows, filming locations, budgets and lots more.
  • TCM There’s nothing interactive about this site for Turner Classic Movies, but if you’re watching an old film, whether on TCM or another channel, it’s a terrific resource for information on actors, directors and movies, with lots of entertaining tidbits about the making of various old flicks and ancient studio politics.
  • PBS If you’re watching, say, a Ken Burns multi-part documentary and want to know when the next episode will air, you’ll find the answer here. You will also encounter lots of helpful supplementary information and videos, including interviews with the directors, producers and cast. (If you missed an episode of a favorite show, you can also catch up by streaming it here.)
  • Foodnetwork Did you tune in halfway through Giada De Laurentiis' Food Network show and miss the first part of that gorgeous pasta dish she just whipped up? Never fear. Click on the cable station's website or app to find the recipe (and a gazillion others like it).
  • BBC News Even as you watch your favorite drama, sitcom or sports team, don’t completely tune out the real world. A quick check of BBC’s site will keep you in the loop on top news stories around the world — and, if you have the interest and the time, you can then burrow in for more detail and video reports.