Nice Agency

Stop calling it the second screen

Posted by January 27, 2014
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by Ven Ganeva, Senior User Experience Designer, Nice Agency.

We all love a buzzword don’t we, but the ‘second screen’ reference that’s been floating around is getting to me a little. In effect, second screen refers to an additional screen such as that of a smartphone or tablet, used to interact with the content they are consuming on a TV screen.

A huge number of apps have been developed which allow an audience to extend their viewing experience across these ‘second screen’ devices. Zeebox, GetGlue, Viggle, IntoNow and numerous program or network specific apps are littering the app stores. Content producers and marketers have been shouting about opportunities on these smaller screens to capture the audience’s attention and increase brand engagement.

But are these devices really second screens?

Now, my problem with this term is that it implies a smaller device is the second screen and TV is the first screen, that viewers are primarily focused on the big screen. So when I’m watching a movie, although it might not have my full-undivided attention, it is my primary task. Everything else I do is secondary to this. While I can see historically how this logic has come to being, it’s no longer the case. Today this seems like an outdated view on how your average multi-connected user consumes content.

In my opinion, the term ‘second screen’ is no longer valid and here’s why.

1. On the go viewing

Audiences today are not confined to the living room, they can access entertainment from pretty much anywhere at any time.

With the imminent growth of 4G networks (high five to Three, for making this available to current customers for free very soon), availability of cheaper data plans and provision of WiFi on the Underground, there’s really nothing to stop people from streaming that latest episode of Sons of Anarchy directly from their mobile on their commute to work in the morning. Really, it can’t be just me that does this?

In this scenario there isn’t a second screen at all, only your first primary viewing device, be it a mobile or a tablet. I see no reason why users wouldn’t want to extend their viewing experience through their devices on the move.

2. So many connected devices

It’s no longer as simple as assuming a user will watch a TV and maybe interact with their mobile phone at the same time. There are like a million and one connected devices made available to the public every day and Cisco estimates that there will be 50 billion connected devices globally by 2020.

According to the Ericsson ConsumerLab TV and Media study 2013, “mobile connected devices will be prioritized over the secondary TV sets, as they offer greater access to content, flexibility and convenience. TVs and smartphones still make up the core screen combination, but consumers will use whatever device is close at hand when they need it. And Google Insights tell us that nearly all viewers use another device to watch TV online, be those latops, desktops, game consoles, smartphones or tablets.

In these scenarios I would say there might be a second screen, or a third or a fourth. Brands shouldn’t limit themselves to a ‘second screen’ mentality, and should look for opportunities for multi-screen engagement and designing for seamless cross-channel experiences.

3. Blurring geographical boundaries

It really doesn’t matter what part of the world you live in, if you want to watch the latest episode of your favourite show you’ll find a way to watch it. Legally or otherwise, on your TV or any other device you can get your hands on.

Take Breaking Bad for example. The long-anticipated first episode of the second half of the fifth and final season spurred huge piracy figures. Just 12 hours after the first copy appeared online more than 500,000 people had already downloaded the show via various torrent sites.

Series producers recognised this and acted on it by making the latest episodes of Breaking Bad available on Netflix UK the day after it aired in the US. This made me very happy indeed, not to mention creating a Netflix brand advocate and led to me keeping my subscription after Breaking Bad finished. I suspect I’m not alone in this and probably goes some way to explaining why Netflix’s share price has more than trebled over the past year.

In the words of Kevin Spacey:

“Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it.”

I am not advocating piracy by the way, I think social media is partly to blame for this. For a show that’s so brilliant and so popular you don’t want to risk seeing any spoilers on social media before you’ve had a chance to watch it yourself. So like it or not, the hardcore fans will go to any lengths to watch the latest episode as and when it first airs to the public, no matter what country they’re in.

My point is, people can and will get access to digital content that is not made available on your TV screen, hence making your TV a little bit redundant in this scenario, again throwing the second screen argument out the window.

4. Social viewing

We know social media has changed the TV watching experience dramatically. Viewers naturally want to watch TV with friends, talk about it and get excited about it together. A lot of these so called ‘second screen’ apps do recognise this and offer aggregated social feeds so users don’t leave the app to go elsewhere for their conversations. Zeebox for example do this very well. It’s an app available across multiple devices that helps you discover, connect, share and interact – all live as you watch your favourite TV show.

However, we’re starting to see a shift in where the TV watching experience is actually starting. Social first, TV second. Second screen apps account for the scenario of Joe Bloggs watching a show and then sharing it on social media. They seem to have completely forgotten about Fanny Smith stumbling across an interesting TV show conversation on social media, then making the decision to watch that show.

Social channels are creating services to accommodate this, with Twitter top of the pile. Twitter added the “See It” button on tweets to drive people directly to shows currently airing, TV conversation targeting was added to the UK, and most recently it rolled out trending TV show banners.

Remind me again what’s the second screen here?

5. Convergence of devices

Traditional TV required that viewers turned on their TV and use a dedicated remote control device to browse channels. Now there are numerous ways a viewer can control their TV.

Google’s Chromecast is a nifty little device that allows users affectively control their TV through their Android device. So now you can browse content on your connected device, be it a YouTube video, Netflix movie, music or pictures and if you decide you want to appreciate it on a big screen, you can just send it over wirelessly to your TV.

HBO Go is the latest content provider to team up with Chromecast. Here’s what their CTO Otto Berkes had to say about it:

“Google’s Chromecast is one of the newest, more exciting devices in the marketplace today, so we are very happy to bring this capability to our subscribers. From the beginning, our goal has been to bring HBO GO to the devices where viewers want to watch it and Chromecast definitely falls into that category.”

With the Chromecast, Google essentially demoted your television into a second screen, to be controlled by your phone, tablet or laptop.

6. Actual second screen devices exist now

A new type of smartphone was launched in Russia at the end of last year, called the YotaPhone, which is actually a dual-screen. It has your standard LCD colour touch screen on one side and a black and white e-paper display on the other. What’s interesting is that the e-paper display can be always on, displaying information such as emails, messages, calls and meetings, without draining your battery. I also like the fact that you can have alternative functionality on each screen that complements the other, for example, a standard camera UI on one side, and a message asking your friends to ‘smile for the camera’ on the other.

Some very interesting opportunities could emerge from a device such as this. Imagine the possibilities of an always-on screen. Viewers could keep up with real-time discussions on their favourite show after they’ve finished watching? Picture the benefits of having access to a second screen, without the need to carry an additional device. Fans could watch their favourite show and turn the phone to see complementary information to the scene they are watching, without any obstruction to their viewing experience?

Designing for a second screen on such devices could be super interesting.


So there you have it, just six reasons why I think we need to stop calling it the second screen. Viewers aren’t always focused on the TV as their primary screen, they aren’t just sitting on the sofa at home, and they probably aren’t using a single device as part of a second screen experience. Audiences aren’t restricted by content only available on their TV screens, content consumption happens via multiple channels and devices.

Stop and reconsider how people are consuming content in an ever-growing digital world. Stop limiting design thinking around a ‘second screen’ mentality and start exploring opportunities for multi-screen engagement and seamless cross-channel experiences. Move away from traditional TV thinking and start looking into the future. There’s a whole web of connected devices and screens unravelling before us. Exciting times ahead.

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