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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:

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!

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13 Comments.


  1. Interesting overview. Don’t forget about Zeebox in the UK with a $15+ Million investment from BSkyB. The second screen or companion screen will grow much bigger in 2012 with growing tablet and smartphone markets. The key is to integrate it into the TV experience and provide monetization opportunities.

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  2. On the one side of the market there is a move towards social TV and engagement, but then on the other side there is larger numbers moving towards unscheduled content being watched online.
    How do you think advertisers are going to deal with this? Is there an opportunity for sponsorship or advertising in the social TV arena?

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    • @Barrytg, thank you for sharing those thoughts. This is one of those topics where the answer is “it depends” — upon who you define as advertisers. For the forward-thinking marketers, it’s yet one more new opportunity to reach out to — and connect with — consumers. That being said, traditional advertisers and their legacy media buyers will likely move more slowly towards this model — once the early adopters have proven the ROI.

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    • @Barrytg, one of the reasons I think the industry is so excited about the companion screen concept is the possibility for new kinds of advertising that are far more interactive, but less intrusive on the TV viewing experience. When you can link what’s happening on an iPad with what’s happening on the TV, a consumer could theoratically purchase products that show up in the episode, take advantage of a special offer, subscribe to a Twitter feed, etc., without ever pausing the action. My next blog post will actually dive into this topic. It’s still very early in the game, but there are a ton of cool ideas out there right now.

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  3. Sounds interesting Jason make sure you let me know when your blog is done I would be interested in reading it (Tweet me @barrytg)
    Is it most likely going to be 3rd party applications that create these new forms of advertising opportunities because currently twitter is really still the main way it is happening?

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    • @Barrytg, it’s still very early with this stuff, but there seems to be efforts under way from all sides, often in partnership. One of the models I’m planning to discuss involves a relatively well-known app developer partnering with NBC. Another was recently demoed by Cisco at CES as part of Videoscape, also employing a third-party application. I’ll drop you a line when the next blog is published, thanks again!

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  4. Thanks barrytg for pointing out that contradiction. I have heard similar (quite a bit). I wonder if there is much deep data on this? Could it be that there are at least two kinds of viewing? One is the kind that is concentrated and full attention – like movies and TV series – which are very given to time (or even season) shifting. Then there’s the kind that is organically linked to the present (or near present) – sports, news, weather, interactive shows, award shows, talk shows, etc. It seems those two are so different that it is confusing to refer to them both as “TV” anymnore.

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  5. @David Holbert, this is an interesting question, and looking at the Nielsen release, it doesn’t appear they made this distinction in their survey. Reporting strictly from personal experience (with some shame, I must admit) it seems that the times the TV has my “full and concentrated attention” are quickly dwindling.

    I think you’re right that content linked to the present–especially sports–lends itself to a multi-screen experience. (I can’t watch a football game without messaging friends, tracking my twitter feed, checking message boards, going over stats, and of course, tracking my fantasy football team(s).)

    But, while I would like to say my behavior is different when I’m watching a dramatic TV series, increasingly I am just as busy. Much to my wife’s chagrin. (I think she may be instituting a no-gadgets policy for our living room during Downton Abbey.)

    I don’t know how representative I am, but I suspect there are a lot of people who find themselves splitting their attention between screens these days, regardless of what they are watching.

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  6. Thanks, I think I’m guilty of veering off subject into something having to do with appoitment versus VOD TV. True what you say that it is difficult to assign causality to the multi-screen phenomenon. Isn’t it everywhere though? In a group, someone not immediately conversing isn’t waiting awkwardly to join in, but flipping through posts. During a conversation, someone has a device at the ready for fact checking and ephasia foiling. The solitaire diner is no longer focused on some mid-range fantasy but looking at small screen. Why should TV be any different? Isn’t that a comfort if you’re that guy? I would be cautious about promotion that follows the small screen from the large. Isn’t a big part of the motivation getting away from the tedious ads? People I know are certain that stations coordinate their commercial breaks to frustrate channel surfers. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, just that the big brotherness of it all is going to be soemthing to get over.

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  7. @David Holbert, I think you’re certainly right. If companion devices offer little more than just pop-up ads and targeted spam, people are not going to use them. But there are also opportunities for content and commerce that are more engaging than that.

    At the risk of pre-empting my next post on this topic, there are some very cool concepts I’ve been reading about, in terms of allowing people to purchase things they’re seeing onscreen during a show, outside the context of a traditional ad.

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