Viewers already use multiple devices at once – the trick is enabling complementary usage.

Years after Netflix, smartphones and tablets all hit the scene, even those service providers capable of multi-screen delivery continue to struggle with the multi-screen phenomenon.

That’s because even as service providers respond to viewers’ increasing appetite for video on screens other than the TV, consumers’ multi-screen behavior continues to evolve. Viewers are increasingly using their many different screens, not just in isolation, but in combination. That’s the second screen phenomenon.

Where multi-screen is strictly video, the second screen phenomenon includes people using multiple screens, sequentially or simultaneously, to accomplish a wide range of tasks, only some of which involve video.

The percentage of second screen use that involves a smartphone or a laptop used simultaneously with a TV is growing, however. According to a study released by Google in the second half of last year, 77 percent of TV viewers watch with another device in hand (49 percent of the time that device is a smartphone, and 34 percent of the time it is a PC or laptop).

Those figures are encouraging for service providers no matter how you slice them – but they do need to be sliced. There are two different types of simultaneous behaviors: multi-tasking and complementary.

An example of the former would be playing a video game while also keeping an eye on the TV – seemingly of little interest, but we’ll come back to that.

There are multiple examples of complementary activity, among them using the second screen to search for and discover content to display on the TV screen, or to surf the Web looking up information about the content being viewed (checking out IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, for example), or logging in to Twitter or Facebook to discuss what’s onscreen with friends.

Complementary behavior is assumed to reinforce the TV experience, enhancing engagement to the point where people are starting to try to measure the phenomenon.

Rentrak chartRentrak has been publishing a Stickiness Index and Social Media Index (Rentrak compiles the former; Bluefin Labs compiles the latter). Content with the most engaged viewers will have a higher Stickiness Index rating number, indicating that more of the audience is tuned in for the duration of the series. Similarly, series that generate the most social media comments will have a higher Social Media Index rating.

The interesting thing is the correlation between the two lists; series that rank high by one measure tend to rank high by the other. It’s pretty much what most people would expect, but it’s nice to see some confirmation.

And since it’s pretty much what most people would expect, it’s also no surprise that service providers have begun to enable second screen usage.

The kickoff
The first attempts at second screen usage are apps that turn second screen devices into remote controls. Comcast earned an extraordinary amount of media attention when it announced its Xfinity remote control app at CES in 2010 and introduced a version for Apple iOS devices later that same year.

The app provided more than remote control; it was also a window for the Xfinity program guide. Xfinity subscribers could use the same device for navigation.

Over the ensuing 15 months, other service providers have, one after the other, introduced similar remote control/nav apps – each trying to add a little more value than the one before – incorporating control of DVRs or rolling in TV Everywhere/multi-screen capability into the same app.

Arris' MG2402In September, BendBroadband introduced an app that works in conjunction with the Arris gateway it is using that enables its subscribers to use an iPad as a remote control for both the TV and DVR, as well as for access to the program guide.

Last December, Rogers Communications introduced its Anyplace TV Home Edition second screen app, enabling its subscribers to use their mobile devices as a remote control, to perform navigation and search, to program their PVRs, and to stream live video. At the point of introduction, Rogers was transmitting 25 different channels to broadband subscribers.

At the most recent CES, Cox Communications and Dish Network both vowed to up the ante with second screen apps.

Cox demonstrated an app being built by Cisco that will attempt to personalize the video experience for its customers based on customer preferences and viewing habits. The new app builds off of a previous app called Cox TV Connect, which allows customers to experience live TV on their mobile devices.

The new Cox app, as yet unnamed, features 90 live channels, access to on-demand content and the ability to use a tablet as a remote control for Cox’s Trio guide. It will also rely on software from ThinkAnalytics that will provide personalized video recommendations through the Trio guide.

Slingbox Companion app on an iPadAlso at CES, Sling Media announced its forthcoming Slingbox Companion app. Sister company Dish Network separately announced an app called Explorer that Sling Media helped build and which includes some of the features of Slingbox Companion.

The company is working to integrate that with additional technologies to amplify the value. The company arranged to incorporate in its Slingbox 350 and 500 models software from Audible Magic that automatically identifies content that allows the Slingbox Companion to connect viewers to supplemental television show content, connections to Facebook and Twitter for sharing of viewing experiences, and value-added information related to TV commercials where viewers can link to additional information.

“It will show you the show in front of you, and you can see what people are saying about it on Twitter. It can show you other shows that are similar to that one,” said Brian Jaquet, a PR consultant for Sling Media.

This is similar to the zeebox app that Comcast and others have been working with. Zeebox allows users to access a program guide and see what tweets are being posted about the show they’re watching. Viewers are also presented with related links and items of news, along with static information such as credits. Zeebox also provides interactive features such as polling; Comcast unit NBC is using that feature.

Comcast is also integrating customized apps and social media features (including Twitter, Facebook and Pandora) with its traditional video services in the app that goes along with the X1 DVR-based service the MSO began rolling out this year.

The app, of course, allows customers to use their handhelds as remote controls, but also to access interactive guides and create personalized shortcuts and favorites (Comcast is calling them “Quick Links”). In addition, customers can use their second screen devices’ virtual keyboards to search through content.

Have nav?
It is no coincidence that a lot of second screen apps now include navigation and some form of advanced search and discovery. Traditional navigation can be brutally unwieldy. From the service provider side, there’s an argument to be made that the second screen phenomenon is all about the interface.

One of the people making that argument is Dave McElhatten, senior vice president of studio and services at ActiveVideo Networks.

“Why has all this happened? A lot of interfaces may not be from 1980, but they sure feel like it. A lot of experience out there is sub-optimal. Interfaces are just not a focus, and there have been a lot of problems with the boxes out there,” McElhatten said. “A few years ago, I was with an operator, and all we wanted to do was a simple change in the text. We had to go through two vendors, and it would take several months – it just wasn’t worth it.”

ActiveVideo’s approach is to make almost everything cloud-based, including the delivery of the interface. By building everything on Web standard HTML5, which was designed for serving up interactive experiences for any size screen, ActiveVideo is providing essentially by default what other companies are accomplishing through apps.

ActiveVideo screenshot
“We’re delivering games to a major operator,” McElhatten said. “They’re the same games that are available elsewhere, and maybe they’re even done better elsewhere. But we’re serving 10 million games a month to one MSO, and the average session is a little less than 30 minutes. Why? It’s multi-player. It’s sharing. And the other thing is people want to play on the biggest display in the house.”

You can create a virtual channel on your iPad – it gets delivered as a personalized program guide. It’s literally my TV, McElhatten added.

“You start with tuning, move to better navigation, and on to search and discovery, and then personalization – yes, check, check, check. But this is about so much more than that. The box is an anchor, and we think the cloud gets you away from that. You do this for the quality of service, for the consistency of the brand and for interactivity,” McElhatten said.

Chris Knowlton, vice president of product management at Wowza, agrees that the goal with second screen apps has to be more interactivity.

“Some of the early things were not very compelling. You can do things that provide information on actors and actresses, but stuff that does not change is less interesting,” Knowlton said. “You might put in a quiz. Providing new information is even better. What you’re looking for is a richer experience. Perhaps you might even want to develop something that would anticipate what you might want to see.

“Another thing that can be interesting is seeing something on the primary screen, and on the second you offer a different view – an offer to go to a sideline cam, for example,” Knowlton continued. “It’s getting more and more about having content that complements whatever you see on the primary screen.”

“We know a lot of our customers are sports fans,” Jaquet said. “We can deliver stats – it’s a fantasy football player’s dream.”

Sling Media also introduced a new feature on its 500 box that enables people to hook up a USB hard drive and store their own media. That facility is controlled by an app – My Media with Sling Sync – that allows Slingbox owners to navigate through their media on the drive and display it on their TVs.

“Slingbox can be an important part of the living room experience. We used to be all about outside the home, but now we’re also about using it inside the home. If we let people use their tablets not only for viewing but for navigating – that stickiness will help us now and in the future.”

The discussion about simultaneous behavior thus far has focused entirely on complementary behavior. But that’s only the logical beginning, because there are plenty of multitasking behaviors that could be turned complementary with a little bit of effort.

Google chartPeople are already using their smaller screens for shopping. That behavior is already ingrained. Furthermore, TV is already a major catalyst for search – 22 percent of all searches on smartphones and 10 percent of all searches on PCs/laptops are initiated by people responding to what they see on their TVs, whether content or ads, according to Google.

A lot of smart people think that video providers should eventually be able to take advantage of that by providing multi-screen viewers opportunities to purchase items and services they see in the video they consume.

“Monetization is usually tied in with ads,” Knowlton observed. “Say you see an ad for a Ford F-250. You can push a banner onto the second screen that says, ‘If you want to see more about this truck, click here.’ Or if you see James Bond walking out with a new toy – one that actually exists – you can ask, ‘Would you like to see more about that?’ You can stop the Bond movie, view the ad, then go back to the film.”

The idea, he explained, would be to have everything triggered to happen automatically once the viewer indicates an interest in seeing the ad.