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First Screens and Second Screens Vie for Attention

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It all started more than 350 years ago in Oxford, England. In the 1650s The Eagle and Child pub opened its doors and began catering to a steady stream of great minds who were thirsty for fresh ideas and a pint of ale. But in the 1930s this narrow building would widen its influence to include future generations around the world. A small group of writers called The Inklings started gathering to critique each others’ work and see who could read bad prose aloud for the longest without laughing. “The Bird and Baby,” as it was jokingly referred to, was the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So what does this have to do with online video?

Fast-forward to 2011. I’m in the living room with my wife and two daughters, watching Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on our 42" HD television. While I read the whole Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, my memory is failing me on the finer points of the plot. Where was Cair Paravel? I wonder if those cool maps from the books are online. In 15 seconds I am looking at all the original maps on my iPhone and digging through a treasure trove of supporting material. I can even watch video clips ... while I’m watching the movie! But what if the second screen becomes more engaging than the first screen? Forty-two inches of 1080p HD with 5.1 surround sound is hard to ignore, right?

The latest data is not a surprise, but the outcomes should be. According to Nielsen, 70% of tablet owners and 68% of smartphone owners surf while watching TV. That’s great news, right? Both traditional and nontraditional content providers add supporting content in the form of apps, social interaction points, and additional media. This all leads to a fuller, richer experience for consumers, who can add their own content, chat, and become fully immersed in the event. But—and this is a huge but—ultimately, the use of the second screen is dictated by the consumer. Traditional TV and even most online video viewing experiences are still controlled by the content providers. So how do we move forward in the world of the second screen?

First, we should drop the “first, second, third screen” nomenclature. The screen you are paying attention to at any moment is your primary screen. Anything else becomes background noise. When I started watching Narnia fan fiction videos on YouTube during family movie night, my iPhone became my primary screen. An informal Twitter survey confirmed widespread multiple-screen consumption. It’s easy to imagine the news blaring on a large TV, Hulu playing on the laptop, and a Facebook cat video running on your smartphone, all playing together like a symphony of strangers.

Second, content providers need to acknowledge the continued shift of power from producer to consumer. The more options for viewing and ease of transition from screen to screen will define the winners. The future of online video is a show purely driven by user interaction and suggestion in real time. Think Lost meets Whose Line Is It Anyway?: “Facebook fans have spoken. The smoke monster will now be voiced by Christopher Walken.”

Finally, it’s all about a great story. The great narratives will adapt and morph to meet the delivery mechanisms that are available. I would love to have been a fly on the wall, listening to Tolkien, Lewis, and their buddies sharing ideas. It would be great to go back in time and show them the sneak-peek video podcast with Peter Jackson from the set of The Hobbit on my iPad.

On second thought, I think it best to leave the past alone. Besides, they might become jealous. They might want to take my precious ... er ... I mean, my iPad. 

This column originally ran in the August/September, 2011, issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "A Second Screen to Rule Them All."

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