TV’s double vision, when 1 screen isn’t enough

As a kid, I dreamed of having a telephone that was plugged into my family's TV and would let me ring up whoever I was watching. With this special phone, I could reach my favorite TV stars, introduce myself and talk to them about their shows.

Flash forward a few decades. On a Thursday night last month, Kerry Washington was live-tweeting answers to questions tweeted from viewers as they watched the premiere of her new ABC series, "Scandal."

Washington was at her mother's New York apartment, where family and friends were gathered for a viewing party in her honor.

The act of watching TV has no doubt gone through epic transformations.

Remember when TV shows were locked in place by broadcasters, cemented on each station's grid in take-it-or-leave-it formation? Well, maybe you don't. It's been a generation since the first affordable home VCRs let viewers store and time-shift their favorite programs, putting made-to-order scheduling in each viewer's hands.

Here's another one: Remember when you needed a TV to watch TV? It was only in recent years that TV content escaped the physical constraints of what we call a TV. You now can opt for watching "television" on a PC screen or even newfangled devices such as an iPad, iPhone or Kindle Fire.

Now, in the latest quantum leap, those alternative outlets are converging with the TV for a multi-screen experience.

A new book, "Social TV," speaks of "a rediscovery of TV as a new medium." According to authors Mike Proulx and Stacey Shepatin, "We now live in a world where television has symbiotically become one with the Web, social media and mobile."

No more can TV-watching be contained by the TV or any other gadget. A companion screen - be it computer, tablet or smartphone - has been brought into the act.

TV was always a solitary pastime. Maybe a few family members convened to watch together, but for the most part, TV funneled the world to viewers individually, each of whom knew that millions of others were seeing the same shows, but in similar isolation. Truly sharing the experience was impossible, even unthinkable.

Now, thanks to "second screens" and the social media they convey, the TV audience can talk among themselves. As they engage in the new pastime of virtual co-viewing, they can express their likes and dislikes in a massive, global back-and-forth.

What's more, they are heard, and often heeded, by the presenters of those programs.

Maybe it's as simple as a cable-news show that, bannering its hashtag, invites Twitter users to weigh in on the story being reported.

Maybe it's as complex as teams of data miners curating what the Twitterati are saying about a TV show, from moment to moment as the show unfolds.

And the tweets add up. At 10:35 p.m. Eastern time on a Sunday night last August, MTV's "Video Music Awards" sparked a record-breaking 8,868 tweets-per-second as Beyonce finished singing and rubbed her belly, signaling she was pregnant.

In March, the Hollywood Reporter published results of a poll that found that nine out of 10 people view social networking sites as a new form of entertainment, while more than half of the respondents said social media sites are important tastemakers in determining not only what to watch, but also what to buy.

The poll, conducted by market research firm Penn Schoen Berland, surveyed 750 social network users ages 13 to 49. It found that half of the respondents post on social networking sites while watching TV to feel connected to others who might be watching.

Peel is one of several sites that provide an on-screen customized remote control and a search mechanism for keeping track of top TV shows. Meanwhile, its social platform allows users to find and follow friends to see what they are recommending.

As one special feature, Peel unveiled an "American Idol" app earlier this season, which, among other things, lets users post "Cheers" and "Boos" for each performer as a real-time interaction, which results in a leaderboard summarizing how the Peel community sizes up the performances.

"Most viewers want to have a rich engagement around a program," says Peel marketing vice president Scott Ellis. "They're looking for that intersection of the social TV platform and the second screen, which provides an enhancement of the programs they care about."

But there's more going on than that. Companies are tracking buzz from you outspoken viewers. Programmers and advertisers are interested in how you respond to their shows, stars, advertisements and brands. Social media exchanges are followed, quantified and analyzed.

With measurements like tweets per second, volume of show mentions, and conversation sentiment, social media have certified TV viewers as active participants, not just pairs of eyeballs. As a viewer who engages in social TV media, you are no longer held captive to the proxy voices of a few thousand households in a Nielsen audience sample. You are part of the world's largest focus group.

For instance, on a recent Wednesday night, you made "American Idol" the top broadcast show on social media, according to figures compiled by Trendrr.tv from Twitter, Facebook and other sites. There were 227,858 messages all day and 162,700 while the show was airing.

This comports with overnight Nielsens, which placed "American Idol" first with 16.5 million viewers.

"TV has always stimulated conversation," says Tom Thai, vice president of marketing at Bluefin Labs, another social TV analytical firm. "Whether in people's living rooms, or as the proverbial water-cooler effect with people discussing shows at work, you watch TV and then you talk about it. But no one had been able to quantitatively measure those conversations, so they didn't factor into business decision-making."

CBS conducts lots of research of its own to harvest viewer feedback, notes David Poltrack, the network's chief research officer. But as a Bluefin client, CBS recognizes that what is unique about the feedback Bluefin crunches "is the volume of responses: It is ongoing, in a continuous stream," Poltrack says. "The question that is still to be resolved: How representative is that feedback?"

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