Tablets and smartphones battle TV for the role of primary screen

Broadcasters seek ways to cash in on the 'second screen' phenomenon, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 3:06pm

Do you watch television with a tablet on your lap or a smartphone in your hand? If so, you're not alone - and it's drastically changing the balance of power in the world of entertainment.

The past decade saw the breakthrough of affordable big-screen televisions, so it's ironic that, for many of us, live television is becoming a background noise to the real business of online shopping, YouTube or Weibo, on a smartphone or tablet.

Broadcasters call this phenomenon the "second screen", and are starting to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. The trend is at its height in the US and Europe, where many broadcasters provide apps that allow "TV everywhere", instant replay of live TV, and even play-along apps for quiz shows, and voting on reality TV.

IPTV operators such as now TV in Hong Kong and BesTV already offer second-screen services that make television programmes viewable on both a set-top box and a tablet, while television manufacturers such as Hisense - recognising how central this trend is becoming for television viewers - sell smart televisions together with a tablet.

The phrase "second screen" is misleading. What we are really doing is multiscreening. "Multiscreen viewing is expected to become an essential part of a television programme's production, not an afterthought," says Fiona Harkin, senior vice-president for content at Stylus, a research and advisory firm.

She says broadcasters are developing complementary second screen tools and applications for tablets and smartphones. "Broadcasters are responding to consumer desire for more control over when and where they engage with entertainment media," she says.

Nowhere is this habit of multitasking entertainment stronger than on the mainland, where a new survey describes those with a broadband connection and at least one companion device as "super consumers" of data on multiple screens.

Video technology company Arris Group's Fourth Annual Media Engagement Barometer - which surveyed 9,500 consumers in 17 markets earlier this year - found Chinese consumers at odds with the rest of Asia. "APAC [Asia-Pacific] consumers prefer watching television in the living room than the bedroom [but] Chinese consumers are the opposite," says Tim Gropp, senior vice-president, Asia-Pacific sales, at Arris. The survey found that 49 per cent watch television on a tablet, with 85 per cent using the same device to watch some kind of entertainment programme.

The survey may represent a small proportion of the wider Chinese community, but it's pretty clear that as broadband penetration increases, Chinese consumers will eventually out-consume everyone. In Hong Kong, tablets are the fastest-growing second screen, with demand doubling in the past year, according to market researchers at GfK.

Sales of smartphones remain much higher, but GfK found that that smartphones with 4.5-inch or bigger screens have increased in popularity by a third in the past year. In China as a whole it's all about the smartphone, too.

We go into a blind panic if our smartphone isn't where it should be

Around two-thirds use one for entertainment, and according to digital media giant Tencent president Lau Seng-yee, 300,000 smartphones are activated each day - and 80 per cent of mobile phone users in China sleep with their smartphones by their beds.

Given the deeply personal relationship we appear to have with our smartphones, talk of second-screen viewing does appear to be a gross misunderstanding.

"It's no longer taken for granted that the mobile is the second screen," says Harkin, who thinks we're seeing a move towards multiscreening and even the advent of "frizzing", which she defines as frantic, ineffective multiscreening.

But the dominant screen does depend on the activity, with social video firmly clustered around the smartphone. "More consumers are interested in sharing videos through their mobile devices, either ones they made themselves or clips of live broadcasts that they have personally edited," says Harkin.

Video apps like Vine and Instagram are integral to this trend, but social media sites like Weibo and Facebook have an increasingly big part to play, too. "Social platforms are morphing into broadcast channels in their own right … we see a future being mapped where entertainment video content can come from anywhere."

Perhaps we should rename the television the "public screen". "Our phones are our personal screen - everything else is just a screen, and first, second or third screen has no relevance any more," says Christer Eriksson, regional planning director at global digital agency R/GA Singapore, creators of the Nike Fuel Band and Google Wallet.

Eriksson's colleague at R/GA Singapore, group director of production Steven Kalifowitz, thinks that the battle for the first screen was lost when smartphones became omnipresent.

"Technically speaking, they're more than the first screen - they're our life partners," he says. "They're the first thing we look at when we wake up and the last thing we look at before going to bed, and we feel anxious when they're not near us."

Of course, he's right - who hasn't gone into blind panic mode upon realising that a smartphone isn't where we thought it was?

But Kalifowitz insists that what only broadcasters still call the first screen - the TV - still has a powerful pull, and shouldn't be underestimated. "When we decide to watch television, especially live television, the programme is our focus, as is the device it's playing on," he says.

"The mobile device and the apps we're engaging with are a secondary utility to enrich our experience of watching the television - it brings us closer to the content and the others watching it - but the content is our focus."

Live sport, for example, can only be complemented by apps like the F1 2013 Timing App for smartphones and tablets, which gives the kind of real-time lap times and track positioning during a Grand Prix that the television broadcaster can't hope to squeeze into the graphics.

What we do with our devices also depends on who we're with. "If I live alone, and have full control of the TV, then I have the option to augment the experience with my other devices," says Matt Oxley, head of creative technology at Tribal DDB London, a digital creative strategies company that works with Guinness and Volkswagen.

"But if I'm in a family scenario with conflicting choices, then I'm not in control," he says.

Oxley mentions that, in Britain, there has been a resurgence in families spending time together in front of the television, but - and here's the catch - most of the family aren't actually watching it.

They're all too busy on their smartphones and tablets.