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A+E Networks Brings Second Screen Content to the First Screen
Three "Project Runway" shows raise the question, when is second screen content an enhancement and when is it a distraction?

Combining social media and live TV shows is nothing new: Plenty of programs offer second-screen apps to give viewers a deeper level of engagement. But Lifetime, which is owned by A+E Networks, is in the third season of trying something new: It’s bringing that second screen content back to the TV screen.

Starting with season 12 of “Project Runway,” continuing with the third season of “Project Runway: All Stars,” and now in the first season of “Project Runway: Under the Gunn,” viewers are encouraged to answer poll questions up to eight times during the show on their computers or tablets, with the results displayed live on the lower left corner of the TV screen. Viewers might be asked which contestant will have the most trouble finishing on time, for example, or which will likely win.

What you think of this second-screen-to-first-screen innovation has a lot to do with how much of a curmudgeon you are. Personally, I’ve gone full curmudgeon. I don’t vote in the questions, and I hate that Lifetime puts the results on my TV. I get so irritated that I hold one hand up to block the graphic.

It’s not just that these polls are on-screen distractions; they often give things away. I can’t always tell which designers are going to be in the bottom three, for example, and when an on-screen poll asks which of three contestants will likely go home, that spoils a little of the fun.

I spoke to the person in charge of second-screen activity at Lifetime, Evan Silverman, senior vice president for digital media, who explained to me that this voting brings the excitement of live programming to a taped program.

“We measure success not only on the number of people who are actually voting, but whether the results of that interaction -- which play out on air -- give the show a more real-time feel,” Silverman said. “Having the real-time voting and seeing the results fluctuate in real-time adds to the program, particularly for folks who may not be voting but see that there is this real-time nature to it.”

"Runway" shows get an audience of around 900,000 people, Silverman said, and about 25,000 to 70,000 viewers take part in the voting. That’s a high percentage for second-screen participation. One of the reasons Lifetime is able to get that high a response is that it keeps things simple and offers voting through a web browser. There’s no app to download.

By offering online participation, Lifetime drives viewers to the first run of these shows. People need to watch them as they’re broadcast, without DVR delay, to take part. The network has a C3 ratings plan in place with advertisers, Silverman explained, meaning that it gets paid for ads viewed during the premiere run or within 3 days for DVR playback. Encouraging timely viewing helps the network get paid.

While the response to the "Runway" voting has been strong, most viewers don’t take part. How does Lifetime know that those nonvoters enjoy the added on-screen content (or that they aren’t bugged about it, like I am)?

“I personally tend to side on ‘let’s keep the screen clean.’ I personally don’t like when there’s a lot of clutter. I’m very cognizant of keeping any of this data very relevant to the show or else you’re right, it can become a distraction,” Silverman said.

For myself, the answer seems obvious: I should set my DVR to record the second showing of each episode, which doesn’t include the voting graphics. Or I could watch through the Lifetime Roku app, which offers recent episodes without the polls. Then I can sit my curmudgeonly self down and watch without distraction.

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Get Your Second Screen Off My First Screen.”

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