4 Ways Tablets and Smartphones Are Changing TV

Television is changing. Sure, the sets themselves are thinner, more interactive and capable of pulling content from a wider variety of sources than ever. But it’s not just that. The entire concept of TV is morphing: where we watch it, how we watch it and how our interactions with it can impact the broadcasts themselves.

One of the driving forces behind much of this change is the rise of smartphones and tablets.  In the U.S., 88 percent of tablet owners use the device while they watch TV, according to Nielsen. Smartphones – which are much more prevalent among the population – are used by 86 percent of their owners while the TV is on.

We’ve been hearing a lot about social TV, second screens and the like. How are viewers actually using theses devices to supplement their television-watching? And, more importantly, how is it changing TV?

Second Screens For Passive Computing

Multi-screen media consumption is quickly becoming the norm. But just because we’re sitting on the couch with our phones or tablets in hand, doesn’t mean we’re always more engaged with whatever’s on the bigger screen. Indeed, despite all of the TV-related apps and social streams out there, the first thing most people do with their mobile devices on the couch is check their email. Browsing the Web, checking Facebook and using other social networks are also pretty high on the list.

People do use their secondary devices for things related to what’s on the air (more on that in a second), but it’s an important point for show producers and advertisers to note: the multi-screen lifestyle has a way of fracturing people’s attention spans. According to a recent study conducted by Google, 78 percent of all multi-screen usage spans multiple tasks at once.

Digital Reference Guide

Knowing the potential value it holds, plenty of startups and app developers are trying to snag more of viewers’ attention. One way they’re doing that is by making it easier to find relevant information about a show, its creators, its cast and products that may appear on the screen.

As it turns out, this is exactly what many people are inclined to use their smartphones and tablets for anyway. Google’s research found that television content is a significant driver of search activity. That is, a viewer will see a person or product on TV and then do a search for more information.

Apps like i.TV for iPad simplify these searches by corralling information from a variety of sources and presenting them in a single, well-designed interface. Let’s say you’re watching the season premiere of Breaking Bad. From i.TV, you can read related news headlines about the cast and peruse historical information about the show from IMBD and Wikipedia. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “What else is she in?” when an actress appears on screen, you can see why an app like this would be useful.

When they’re not using applications designed explicitly for this purpose, people simply fire up their device’s Web browser and run a search like they normally do. It helps us scratch that curious itch and sometimes leads to the discovery of new shows and movies.

Making TV More Social

The intersection between TV and social media has been generating ample buzz and media conference banter for a few years now.

In the last year or two, Twitter in particular has begun to more deliberately embrace its role in social TV. The company has partnered with networks and show producers to launch Twitter-specific promotional campaigns. These efforts help both parties. Twitter, quite naturally, wants to encourage more people to use its service (and what better way to do that than by joining up with the most widely-consumed legacy mass medium on the planet?). In turn, these tweets help drive awareness of the shows themselves. In the weeks before a show airs, a nine percent increase in social buzz translates into a one percent in actual ratings, according to Nielsen and NM Incite.

In addition to Twitter and Facebook, there’s a slowly-growing category of “check-in” apps for entertainment. Leading this pack is GetGlue, followed by Miso. The “Foursquare-for-TV” concept is still the domain of early adopters, but these companies are hoping to increase their user base with cross-network social integrations and content discovery features.

Social networking has been big for quite some time, but the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has helped tighten the relationship between social media and television by making these services easy to access regardless of time and place.

Starting in Fall 2013, Nielsen will partner with Twitter to introduce the first social media-based audience tracking metric. Nielsen has been tallying TV ratings since the 1950s, and it’s not everyday that a new technology comes along and alters the way the company does its job. Twitter is just such a technological force, and it has officially become too big to ignore.

Tablets: The New TV Set?

These devices aren’t just serving as second screens for TV viewers. In many cases, they’re the first screen. According to Forrester, 32% of tablet owners are less likely to buy a small television set.

From day one, services like Netflix and Hulu Plus have been available on the tablets. No surprise there. But TV networks and cable operators haven’t been ignoring the potential of these devices. The “TV Everywhere” concept pushed by Comcast aims to ensure that television content is available to consumers regardless of where they are and what device they’re carrying around. That means the ability to watch live TV on tablets via Xfinity’s AnyPlay feature, as well as a Netflix-style subscription service called StreamPix.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing category of personalized, social video apps that are beginning to look and feel more like TV. Frequency, Showyou and Vodio are all slickly-designed video apps that pull from social data and curated channels to create TV-style channels that play videos back-to-back automatically. Just like TV.

John Paul Titlow
John Paul Titlow covers trends in new media, digital music and tech culture. His work has appeared in Fast Company, ReadWrite, Billboard and The New York Times. He also teaches journalism at Temple University.
John Paul Titlow
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