Forget second-screen apps. Today, the TV is the second screen

Recently I had a great discussion with a friend of mine from Germany, who told me that TV networks over there are slow to embrace the future of television. Some of that has to do with local regulations and the difficulty to secure content rights, but a lot is also based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how people watch TV.
“They all talk about second screen apps,” he said, only to take out his cell phone and add: “But this is my first screen.”
The idea of the second screen apps has long been embraced in the U.S. as well, with networks building companion apps for their favorite shows, social TV startups offering chats and check-ins on the second screen, and others trying to reinvent the programming guide. Some of these ideas are actually pretty good, others don’t work at all — but the second screen buzzword itself is not just wrong, but dangerous. It lets us to believe that the giant TV screen in the living room is the center of the television universe. That wasn’t true in the past, and it’s much less so today.
Let’s back up a little bit first. Americans watch a lot of TV. The typical American watches anywhere between 2.8 and 4.8 hours of TV a day, depending on whether you believe Nielsen or the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But a lot of that TV viewing has long been low-attention background consumption, and programmers know this very well. The morning show, music television and the continuously looping headline news are all made for running in the background while people eat their breakfast, clean the house or do any of the other things you can do while the TV is on.
And with technology becoming more of a part of our daily lives, this development has only accelerated. Nowadays, people regularly check their emails, browse their Facebook (s FB) feeds, chat and do all kinds of other stuff while the TV is running in the background. The TV has become the second screen, meant to provide some additional entertainment while important interactions are happening on our mobile devices.
old TV
Sure, there still is must-see TV. The shows we really love and that are good enough to capture our imagination and keep us from checking our smart phone notifications for 25 or 50 minutes. The movie we watch with our loved ones during family movie night. The big games played by our favorite teams.
But there is plenty of TV as well that just isn’t that important, while there is plenty of social interaction that is. And depending on our mood and the posts in our Facebook feed, we may even fluctuate and switch back and forth easily. We’re pretty good at multitasking at this point, after all.
So what does that mean for the producers of all of these second-screen apps? First of all, lose the buzzword, because it prevents you from understanding how people really interact with TV. You’re not building apps for the second screen, but for a multiscreen world.
Secondly, that means that apps should — carefully — embrace all screens. Not to annoy viewers everywhere, but to give them options on what to consume where, and in which context. Microsoft’s (s MSFT) Xbox One and its idea of the app sidebar seems promising in that context. Opera is working on similar things for its TV SDK.
But finally, and that may be the most important point: Get out of the way. It doesn’t make sense to reinvent Twitter and Facebook (s FB) for the second screen, or any screen for that matter, because people are just fine using Twitter and Facebook, and only more so while watching TV. The best new apps will be the ones that provide additional utility without trying to monopolize a screen that TV viewers already use for something else.
Multiscreen image courtesy of TV image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user joe.ross.