Once upon a time it was uncommon for households to have more than one television. Not anymore. Now, not only do we need several TVs, but tablets and smartphones while watching too. According to Nielsen, roughly 40% of U.S. mobile device owners are tuning into their TVs with such gadgets on their laps.
Called the "second-screen experience," the trend is one broadcasters are racing to own, out of fear they might lose out on the next big thing in digital engagement and advertising—especially as their viewers oscillate their attention more and more from the big screen to the small. To this end, VH1 has experimented with everything from teaming with Twitter for social feeds to launching their own companion apps for the iPhone and iPad. Today, the channel is unveiling its latest experiment: a partnership with social-video startup Spreecast to provide live, multi-screen video feeds during the upcoming Critics' Choice Movie Awards. "More than three-quarters of our viewers are engaged with a second screen while they're watching TV," says Dan Sacher, VH1's VP of digital. "We started out with petty basic text chats a few years ago—we've graduated in complexity."
The question now is whether the second screen is becoming too complex. VH1's latest venture will feature live feeds from four on-second-screen commentators, rotating from publications such as Slate, GQ, and Gawker. "It's kind of like watching along with your friends, except your friends are joining you via webcam," says Jonathan Mallow, executive producer of VH1.com. The services will provide live chat for its viewers, social sharing on Facebook, Twitter feeds for the award show's hashtags, videos, photos, and various headlines from VH1's editorial team. And that's only online—there's still VH1's Costar app for more mobile entertainment.
At what point does the amount of content provided on the second screen go too far, to the point where it starts detracting from the first-screen experience?
"God, I don't know," Sacher says. "I don't think we've crossed that line yet. I feel like it's our audience that is pushing the envelope here. We're just trying to feed the beast."
In Sacher's view, the more his team has thrown at VH1's viewers, the more they've gobbled it up. "Even when they know they don't have the bandwidth to tweet and be able to read something or watch something on the [second] screen, this age group that we're targeting, they feel compelled [to try]."
"Are we concerned about making this additive, so that people can engage on both screens without being overwhelmed? Yes," Mallow says. "But our audience has shown that they have a lot of capacity."
As social media continues to grow, there's even the question of whether it will all be able to fit on the second screen in the future. One can imagine that in addition to Twitter feeds and Spreecast webcams and blog posts, there could be live Instagram photos, integration with television check-in services such as GetGlue or IntoNow, or live Shazam-ing or Google+ Hangouts—and that's even before targeted advertising enters the mix. Will we ever reach a point where we need a third-screen experience? A fourth- or fifth-screen experience?
"I think there are things we haven't even begun to think through," Mallow says. "There's so much growth here even beyond just: you're watching a TV show and you have a second screen open."
"Ultimately, we're aiming for ubiquity. We want people to engage on whatever screen they're interested in," Sacher says. "But I'm not really sure what we'd do with a third screen actually."
Perhaps allow users to watch Pop Up Video?