It's called the "second screen." And the battle is on to see who can conquer it.
Nielsen data suggests that the vast majority of television viewers use a tablet, smartphone or laptop while they're watching television, diverting their attention from the shows and the advertisements that finance them.
To bolster engagement, networks have launched apps and websites offering content related to their shows and social media chatter around those shows. In the process, they are competing with start-ups, television manufacturers and cable operators to see who can best take advantage not only of the proliferation of devices but of the rise of social media.
"We're all watching TV with a second device in our hands — going to Twitter, going on Facebook, texting," Lori Schwartz, an independent consultant who was most recently chief technology catalyst for McCann WorldGroup, told TheWrap. "If I can, as a network, create an app where that data or information becomes something I can leverage to get smarter about my show and my audience, then I will do it. It's following the eyeballs."
And with that data comes potential advertising money.
"The more our sales team talks to the clients, the more these platforms become part of the conversation," Ryan Osborn, senior director of digital media for NBC News, told TheWrap.
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The first signs of recognition of the power of the "second screen" began with Twitter hashtags on TV shows, directing fans to tweet along — and, hopefully, bring in more viewers.
That has led to networks increasingly experimenting with more immersive experiences: from apps to web-based experiences related to particular shows.
Everyone from HBO to MTV to NBC has created a TV companion experience. Most are for specific shows, providing cast information, polls and behind-the-scenes footage for fans of shows like "Teen Wolf," "Rock Center" and "Game of Thrones."
Others wrap around live events — like MTV’s Video Music Awards and Movie Awards or Country Music Television's annual awards show — that offer photos and trivia and allow viewers to comment during the show itself. Similarly, Showtime's "Showtime Social" app displays the Twitter conversation around a wider range of programs, directing users to explore related content and interact with other viewers.
"We're trying to remove the traditional confines of telling a narrative," Kristin Frank, SVP and general manager of digital for MTV and VH1, told TheWrap. "We're engaging viewers across all screens during shows, between shows and between seasons. We can add content at relevant times where we know you care most because we know what happens next."
At the same time that networks are plunging in, a number of start-ups have launched second-screen apps, some designed for tablets and smartphones, some for smart TVs.
“There are hardware manufacturers, TV-set manufacturers, remote manufacturers, networks themselves and massive amounts of start-ups all trying to enter,” Mark Ghuneim, founder of Trendrr, a company that analyzes social television, told TheWrap. “It became a messy landscape over a short amount of time.”
Some, like Viggle, focus on rewards. Viggle uses audio recognition to identify what viewers watch and for how long, enabling them to accrue points and eventually earn prizes. Others, like GetGlue, focus on "check-in": Users identify what they are watching, see who else is watching it and get recommendations for further viewing. Use it enough, and you win stickers — both virtual and physical.
Still other efforts, such as Miso, are more focused on content. Initially a check-in app, the company has added a feature called Sideshows, which allows users to curate content experiences around any given show — for example, a “Mad Men” drinking game.
Then there's Yahoo’s IntoNow, which uses audio-recognition technology to figure out what users are watching, then offers related content, like cast information. It's also social, allowing users to comment on what friends are watching either within the app or across Facebook and Twitter.
But it's not just iPad and smartphone apps. Flingo, for example, has baked the second-screen experience into the first screen through smart TVs. The company, which earlier this year secured $8 million in additional funding from Mark Cuban and other investors, works with hardware manufacturers so their apps, which use computer vision and video fingerprinting, can provide information directly on the TV set.
"It's the normal wild west early days," Schwartz told TheWrap. "It's very typical of the U.S. ecosystem where you have so much competition, so many different players with so many different roles in ecosystem. It will be survival of the fittest."
And it's still very early in the game. Questions remain about what kinds of content to offer, when people want that content and how it is best delivered. Do they want related content during the show? Will they read it on their phone or on the TV?
“There’s very little research that tells us what kind of content people want,” Osborn said. “We’re just getting started as far as figuring out what exactly that experience is going to be.”
Yet both that study and a Nielsen study found that some viewers do engage with related content while viewing. How to capitalize on that is the challenge.
"It's not like Instagram," Miso CEO Somrat Niyogi said, referencing the massively successful photo-sharing app. "We're still trying to crack the code of how do you add value to the TV-watching experience that supersedes what's happening with Twitter and Google. I don't think anyone has done it yet."
In the meantime, there's an inherent friction between the Misos and IntoNows and the networks. The companies are both partners and competitors, and both sides believe they have an advantage.
“Most network apps don’t do very well,” Niyogi told TheWrap. “How many networks are sharing their numbers on second-screen apps? Any network can create a successful second-screen app for a tentpole show, but that’s one show. If you want to create a second-screen experience, you need to do it for all the shows.”
IntoNow founder Adam Cahan argues that networks are starting to understand that they should not build their own apps because there is not a great return on investment. But tell that to the networks, who see themselves as having the upper hand because they control the content and have the access to the stars.
“It’s all about content,” MTV's Frank told TheWrap. “No amount of technology or social can make bad content good, but it can help to make good content great. It’s not about the best piece of technology but who connects with fans and the storytelling around it.”
With all of this uncertainty, here is what is certain: There will be consolidation, as some companies fold into others or networks buy emerging start-ups. There will be further research and data collected around consumer habits. There will be improvements in user experience. There will be further synchronization of those second screens with the television, unless smart TVs render it all irrelevant.
"We’re in such early days,” Ghuneim said. “There’s a company called Apple that hasn’t stepped into the space yet. There are a few other 10,000-pound gorillas that could change everything.”