The Age of the Smart TV and the Second Screen

Consider the current landscape of television viewing from a marketers’ perspective. DVRs, increased segmentation, binge viewing models, and additional online offerings are compounding pressure to find new ways to communicate. Networks and marketers are stretching and bundling Nielsen ratings, suing or making deals with companies that facilitate commercial skipping, and endlessly searching for new models. The good news is that growing access to internet enabled televisions is perpetuating the next big disruption – the advancement of the second screen experience.

Until the introduction of the second screen, the alternatives to the current commercial-centric model have content creators fearing a portion of the screen will be given over to constant ad scrolls or product chyrons. Creatives are equally concerned with brand representatives offsetting production budgets and impacting their storytelling with corporate agendas based on focus groups and customer survey breakdowns.

Focus groups have never created human, compelling, or widely popular entertainment; rather, it is the writer’s vision that births relatable characters and immersive story worlds that capture audiences’ hearts and attention. Marketers don’t actually want to interfere, but they are stuck searching for ways to expand their communication model.

More than any other medium, television creates and nurtures a deep, ongoing relationship with its audience. Yet research is clear that viewers’ attention spans are in rapid decline and, more often than ever, are interacting with second screens while engaged in their primary content. So what does this mean for the second coming of brand integration?

The Evolution Of the Second Screen
Simply, it’s imperative that show runners, networks, and advertisers control the second screen experience and engage audiences in activities that relate to the primary offering. Just creating a television show isn’t enough anymore; an entire viewing experience across multiple platforms is required.

To-date, the use of second screen experiences is in its infancy and primarily limited to reality TV voting, athletic stats, and behind-the-scenes commentary. The next wave will see product engagement quickly become another viable force in the second screen experience, with companies like Amazon positioning for market integration across everything from product introduction to final delivery.

For years, the Jennifer Aniston Sweater Model forecasted the ability for viewers to instantaneously purchase their favorite characters’aoutfits and accessories by clicking live links during a broadcast. Now, the industry is poised to adopt a less intrusive model in which second screens act like catalogues for all featured items. Viewers can scatter bookmarks through their entertainment and use their second screen to revisit everything from a magazine a character might be flipping through, a recipe of a character’s favourite dish, a painting in a home, or a song that is playing in the background or the speakers the song is playing on.

Crowd sourcing for character’s clothing, accessories, furnishings ceven hobbies, pet care, or music choices can also drive additional audience engagement. Like the projects that democratize runway fashion by providing online platforms to order high-end outfits in customizable sizes, everything we see in a scene in a television show can be brand curated. Furniture companies like Crate and Barrel or IKEA will bid to own the sets of major shows.

Taken further, second screen apps can let viewers mix and match objects from different sets and create virtual, dimensionally accurate rooms. Apps can also allow viewers to create simple self-avatars to dress and accessorize and then these images can be uploaded to social networks for friends to comment on. In this way, television shows will become the launching pads for new products, capturing the benefits, features, and the emotional experience of using them.

Bridging the Gap
Some argue that audiences don’t want this level of product placement in their entertainment, but when the products move from placement into seamless integration, and even play a pivotal role in the narrative, audiences buy in. There is nothing more human than to emulate. The majority of people don’t curate their own styles. They are told what looks good by fashion designers and H&M advertisements and celebrity magazines. Audiences want to drink the drink that gets the girl. Should Nick from New Girl have his own cocktails? The second screen can explore this story world.

Purchasing in this media-guided way is not a fan boy or fan girl act of dedication, but instead an expanded shopping paradigm that will replace or join other forms of online shopping to capture the experience and emotion of owning these things and showing how items can be combined to create a more layered, personalized aesthetic. What’s more powerful then a living room presented in Dwell magazine? A living room that we have a relationship with, that imbues interactions with characters who we feel a connection with. We buy the shirt, blender, or song as much for our appreciation of it as we do for the fact that these objects were a part of our experience of the show.

Instead of dehumanizing our stories by layering in endless product plugs, writers and show runners will be able to interweave the products or services into the storylines — likely through a combination of both the primary and secondary screen. Every manner of sellable will begin to play a small, or sometimes even major, role in the weekly stories, just as these objects do in our everyday lives.

In this new model, traditional advertising agencies will be out of their depth here; so too will today’s average television producer. This hybrid creative will require an adapted skillset. Just as networks have a writer’s room to punch up the jokes, a brand ambassador will focus on incorporating brand messaging organically into longform narratives through the characters’ thoughts, attitudes, lives, and events.

A Paradigm Shift
For some, this is exciting. For others, this model represents an unchecked encroachment on creative storytelling. However, our collective awareness and resistance to brand integration is diminishing. In a similar way to our willingness to exchange privacy for technology’s benefits, our willingness to accept the erosion between content and commercials will continue to disappear. One of our favorite shows, Mad Men, plays a game to see if viewers can tell which of the products are placed in the show for pay and which are used by the writing team on their own accord. And while this show about the advertising world naturally has products at its core, the blurred line between paid product placement and naturally occurring products is a sign of a diminished resistance.

As we drive into this new line of branding, a whole new area of customer research emerges based on how viewers feel about show related products they purchase once the storylines change. When Ross and Rachel break up, do female viewers purge their Rachel inspired items that were associated with Ross? The power of strategic storytelling could spur new influencers of consumerism.

Brands must begin to ask how they can move beyond live Tweets and instant voting to create content that can be viewed and interacted with on a second device. Larry Samuels, senior partner and director of advanced television at GroupM, St. Louis, MO, explains: The problem we’re having with the second screen right now is there isn’t necessarily a compelling reason to switch over and to start to look at those things. As scale grows in the environment, what I think you’re going to see is programmers are going to come up with really interesting and compelling ways to bring the interactivity into the program.” Who will be on the front line of this innovation?

While the second screen experience will vary widely according to the type of show, once networks see the potential revenue-generating sponsorship opportunities, advertisers will realize that they have a new and expanded role to play. Second screen experience creation will get as much attention as the main content. After all, if advertisers want big scale communication, the eyeballs are still on TV; they just need to control where those eyeballs are looking.

Photo by Robert Hawkes

the author

Jonathan Cohen