Settle down, grab a beer, a bowl of popcorn and the remote. And if you have any hands left, grab your iPad too. The couch potato hasn't gone away; it has simply grown a couple of extra appendages. According to a 2011 Deloitte survey, 42% of TV-watching Americans are online at the same time, and the rise of the iPad and other mobile devices has meant they aren't even getting up to do so.
While watching television has always been a social activity, "co-viewing," which involves multiple screens converging on content, has been taking off in recent years. As people moved their social lives online, they started discussing and commenting on shows they were watching -- wherever they could. Co-viewing crept up while media companies were focusing on things like video-on-demand and 3D. But a little viral phenomenon called Facebook pushed it off the ground, with strong tech research helping it along.
Today, broadcasters, cable providers and app developers hungry for a slice of the $500 billion TV market are finally catching up.
Certain types of programming have also contributed heavily to the increasing number of apps and platforms that support co-viewing, said Declan Caulfield, CEO of Starling, the latest venture from Kevin Slavin of area/code, which was behind one of the early co-viewing platforms for MTV.
Caulfield said that one of the biggest trends contributing to research on multi-screen viewing was the pressure on television producers to make more of what he calls "event television" -- big audiences, involved story arcs (see: Lost), reality televisions and live events. "The types of narratives were getting more shocking and this had the unexpected effect on the audience in that they needed to talk to one another more," he said.
But as content providers, networks and independent app developers try to snag a slice of a $500 billion TV-viewing market, defining "co-viewing" is also a matter of debate. How deeply end-users get involved and how much content is thrown at them on secondary and tertiary screen are two topics creating big differences between co-viewing efforts.
One of the lowest tiers of involvement is letting the users decide to enter into the discussion the way they want. This would mean giving them a platform on which to voice opinions, rate shows and post links about the TV show they're watch. Starling prides itself on not having partnerships with cable TV providers or networks. Instead of letting the app figure out what you're watching and where, it lets the users decide the conversation. "It's not about synchronizing with television or advertising; it's about the one-to-one relationship," said Caulfield. "We just present the topics of conversations and they line up," he said.
Miso, a startup app by Bazaar Labs that is backed, in part, by Google Ventures, is a Facebook-esque interface that lets you check-in to shows, "like" programs, comment and share links. Users get points based on how much they share -- a reward for being the No. 1 fan of "House," for example. But for Somrat Niyogi, CEO, this is just the beginning. "We want the device to talk to the TV," he said. Earlier this month, the app, which has about 250,000 users, partnered with TV provider DirectTV, so the app can now understand what you're watching and deliver appropriate content on the second screen. "Now we can get people to engage at multiple points, with existing TV providers, Cablevision, Fios, and so on," said Niyogi.
Much of the co-viewing push is also coming from networks and providers themselves. MTV's WatchWith and VH1's Co-Star app, both developed by Rogue Paper, operate on what Stephanie Boyle, co-founder, calls a "curation principle." "Twitter's amazing, but it's a real fire hose. We need some way to harness that conversation and curate it."
The apps are both built on Rogue Paper's TV Tune In platform, which pulls in trends from social networks, cleans up the spam and the noise, applies natural language filters and delivers users content that is in line with what their friends are watching and thinking about. But the apps plan to go a step further with an ad sync experience that also figures out what ad you are watching and provides a rich-media accompaniment.
Design challenges are one issue for co-viewing platform developers. The obvious problem is not to divert attention away from the primary screen too much -- a delicate balancing act, Starling's Caulfield calls it. That company works car dashboard designers because they understand the principles of keep the attention on the primary focus (the road) while still keep things interesting on the secondary interface. Boyle at Rogue Paper too, has similar misgivings. "In our tests, we realized we were overloading people with information," she said. "The speed that you move through on the second screen is really mathematical art."
In April, AKQA released Heineken Star Player, a dual-screen soccer app that let fans "play along" with every game of the UEFA Champions League. The brief was simple: Do something engaging, make the most of all those guys sitting around drinking beer at home and don't make it interruptive, since soccer fans can get nasty. Technologists and creatives at the agency worked together to do research on viewing habits of soccer fans to find the right moments to engage users. The agency and the client partnered with TV providers to match up latencies -- the time delay between pitch action and when it gets transmitted on the screen. A degree of latency, a buffer of sorts, was built into the app so cheating on the game isn't possible. That way, you couldn't already know a goal was scored via your television, and then use it to gain points on the app.
The amount of traffic is staggering. The Star Player's second round, which launched in September across four global markets, is expected to support 1,200 page views per second. By comparison, the BBC U.K. site serves about 350. Load testing was a big part of the research process for AKQA, according to ECD Nick Bailey.
AKQA and Heineken's success may have been because they got one thing right that other people didn't: They understood that the levels of interaction you want to have is heavily dependent on the type of content. Marie-Jose Montpetit, a scientist at MIT who researches social television, said that sports events invite in-program interaction, while drama arcs are more suited to engagement before and after the show, not during. "People that develop content have to be more aware and content protection needs to develop," said Montpetit. "Distributors, broadcasters and cable companies, but also device developers." According to Montpetit, the iPhone/iPad second screen is just the tip of the convergence iceberg. The next convergence points will be gaming platforms like the Xbox, because they have the ability to handle the massive information amounts and a well-established developer base.
Bailey at AKQA warns that companies should continue letting consumers take the lead. "It's only going to succeed if it respects how consumers use it and doesn't try to change their behavior," he said. "A foolish man is a man who makes predictions about the future, but this is a fantastic opportunity for broadcasters to give television a new lease on life."