Who really owns the second screen?

Few of us just watch TV anymore. Some 39 percent of us use a second screen while plopped in front of the boob tube at least once a day, according to Nielsen. Among tablet owners, 85 percent use the device while watching TV at least once a month, while 41 percent use it that way at least once a day.

Much of the time, what we’re doing on that second screen is unrelated to what we’re ostensibly watching, like checking work emails, updating our Facebook status, or playing Angry Birds. But enough of the time, what’s on the second screen is sufficiently related to the first to make it potentially valuable to someone within the overall TV ecosystem. Who exactly that is — or should be — however, is becoming a source of tension within the business.

Speaking at the Variety Entertainment Apps conference in Los Angeles this week, Fox Broadcasting VP of platforms and innovation Hardie Tankersley noted that when it comes to developing second screen apps for particular TV series, there is often a lot of fingers trying to get into the pie. “There’s the studio, the networks, the sponsors. There are a lot of different people with a piece of that show,” he said. “There’s still a lot of murkiness over who owns the rights to do what.”

Tankersley said Fox is moving away from creating companion apps for individual shows, where the lines of authority can get tangled, in favor of a more generic, Fox-branded network app “because it’s a lot cleaner in terms of who can do what.”

Into that murky mix also come third-party platforms and developers seeking alternately to partner with the networks on creating second-screen apps for particular shows or to build their own ecosystems around those shows.

In announcing his company’s $75 million acquisition of GetGlue, for instance, Viggle CEO Robert Sillerman said, “With this deal, we are combining very experienced and creative product, engineering and management teams that will continue to build great user experiences and provide industry leading platforms for consumers, networks and advertisers.”

Just how good a deal it is for networks, however, is not as clear as Sillerman makes it sound.

“I always get uncomfortable when startups come in to pitch us [on second screen apps] because there are really only two sources of revenue they can tap,” Tankersley said at the Entertainment Apps conference. “They either want to do something that eats into our TV advertising, which I don’t like, or they say they want to partner with us to drive tune-in, which comes out of our marketing budget.”

Appearing on the same panel as Tankersley, Shazam’s executive VP of marketing David Jones defended third-party platforms’ value to the networks. “We can drive five to 18 times the traffic to a network’s own social media content,” Jones said. “We aggregate all the content that exists out there around a show, that isn’t created by the network, and make it easy to find and available. That helps drive the whole engagement cycle around the show. ”

Maybe so, but engagement is not the real prize. If social TV ends up being simply about engagement than Twitter and SMS are going to the only real winners. For dedicated TV companion apps to have a future, whether developed by the networks, the rights owners, or third parties, they will need a more easily convertible currency than engagement. Something like e-commerce, for instance, or interactive advertising.

Most of the jousting going on today over who is able to do what on the second screen is about gaining inside position to claim that ultimately prize, should it ever materialize. For now, though, engagement is all there really is to fight over. The real fight is yet to come.