By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist
Pop quiz: How many screens does it take to watch television programming? For a growing number of people, the answer is two — a TV, plus a media tablet or mobile smartphone. That may seem counterintuitive, but for many of us (present company included) a mobile “companion” device has become an essential part of the living room TV experience.
According to a Nielsen survey of 12,000 connected device owners, 70 percent of tablet owners and 68 percent of smartphone owners use their devices while watching TV. Tablet owners in particular seem unable to put down the iPad while flipping channels, with respondents saying that nearly a third of the time they spend using their device is in front of the TV.
Considering that the tablet market is growing like wildfire (with Apple alone selling an estimated 40 million iPads in 2011), this represents a major new trend — and potentially a huge new opportunity in the TV ecosystem. As the Chicago Tribune noted last summer:
“The implications of (TV everywhere) hit the entire supply chain,” Rob Malnati, director of business development at Motorola Mobility, said in Chicago this month at the cable TV industry’s annual three-day expo, called The Cable Show. “The companion device is changing the way we watch TV.”
The proliferation of mobile devices, fast broadband and online content providers such as Hulu and Netflix has transformed television into a multiscreen activity…. That presents an opportunity for both cable operators and programmers to incorporate that second device into the broader activity of watching TV.
The Rise of Second-Screen Apps
The trend has definitely been noticed by a broad range of stakeholders in the TV industry, including pay TV providers, individual networks, content producers, and third-party software developers.
Among pay TV providers, 2011 was the year of the app. Comcast rolled out Xfinity for mobile Apple and Android devices, allowing users to browse channel listings and control their set-top box from a mobile device (as well as streaming on-demand content directly to that device). Time Warner, Cox, and Cablevision, among many other TV service providers, rolled out apps as well.
And these efforts have been enormously well received. As GigaOM reported last April:
Time Warner Cable earnings call revealed that its iPad app was downloaded 360,000 times during its first month of availability. Cablevision revealed that it saw 50,000 downloads in the first five days of app availability, and when contacted by GigaOM, Comcast shared that its Xfinity TV app has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times since its launch in November.
Broadcast Networks Get in the Game
Just as interesting as the TV providers, however, is the amazing second-screen innovation and experimentation happening now among networks and content producers. Broadcasting & Cable spoke with 25 media executives last summer and published a roundup of some of the TV apps they were deploying as they seek to stake a claim on the second screen.
The entire article is worth reading, but what stands out most is the diversity of these efforts:
- Disney/ABC is experimenting with a variety of ad-supported and premium apps, including an app that streams full episodes of various ABC shows, a premium app for the Oscars, and standalone apps for individual networks and shows (such as Grey’s Anatomy).
- A+E Networks is developing apps that supplement shows with related short-form content.
- CBS is offering various ad-supported and subscription apps that augment linear content, including an ad-supported Big Brother app that lets users stream episodes of the reality show, with a paid option that provides a live feed.
- Nickelodeon has developed a variety of paid games for tablets, but is also developing apps that add content and interactivity to programming.
This is just a small sample of what networks and media companies are working on as they experiment with companion screens. And, third-party software developers are getting into the act as well.
For example, Mashable recently reviewed the Umami iPad app, which listens to a few seconds of audio from a show you’re watching, identifies the program, and brings you cast and crew listings, episode synopses, and links to Twitter feeds from the show. The company is working to develop partnerships with various programs and networks to expand the content offered, and potentially provide an alternative to downloading separate apps for every show you like.
Clearly, companion screens are one of the hot trends in the media industry for 2012 – with both the incumbent players and innovative new market entrants. So keep scanning the Web for the next wave of amazing second-screen apps. You don’t even have to turn off your TV set to do it!