Second Screen Technology – The Revolution Will Probably Not Be Televised

Greg Ash explains what Second Screen Technology is and explores it’s creative potential.

In October last year my web series ‘Super Chill‘ was selected as a finalist in the Samsung Second Screen Storyteller’s Competition, which meant we had the chance to fly to New York and pitch our show to a panel of judges in the hope of gaining $300,000 funding. We didn’t win in the end. I mean if we had I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. I’d be sunning myself in Hollywood with Woody Allen talking existentialism with a load of bikini girls.

But whilst we didn’t win the big prize, the whole week I spent at the New York TV Festival was an illuminating experience which taught me a lot about a new kind of technology that could well become the future of television. And now I hope to impart my limited wisdom to you all because… well it’s kind of exciting. Not just for nerds or creatives, but for viewers as well.

It’s called Second Screen technology. But what is it? Well basically it refers to any secondary device (tablet, cell phone etc.) that can be synced with a Smart TV and therefore incorporate unique content triggered by whatever you are watching. I.e. If you’re watching ‘Breaking Bad’ you might be alerted to an additional scene to watch on your iPad at the same time as the episode plays on your main TV. At perhaps it’s most cynical this content could just be an advertisement linked to the show or event you’re trying to enjoy, but what Samsung challenged writers and directors to do in this competition was to think about ways in which this technology could be used to improve or expand on the viewers’ experiences.

Now, I’m usually quite wary of technology. I made a mocumentary about giving up facebook for 30 days and only recently got a Smart Phone quite recently in an attempt to impress more women. So at first I was a little sceptical about this “Second Screen” business. I mean surely you’re attention can only take in one thing at a time? Why would you want unnecessary distractions on another screen when watching your favourite show?

Of course my cynicism was quickly overshadowed by my desire for $300k, so I set about thinking about how I could apply the potential to  ‘Super Chill’. The show follows the adventures of a British filmmaker (me) and an American actor (Vin) in Portland, Oregon. It’s purposefully lo-fi, laid back and largely traditional in form. It’s basically the opposite of technology. So how could this second screen benefit what we are trying to do with our series? Surely anything flashy or hi-tech would conflict with our story. Perhaps the most obvious way of utilising it would be to play out another scene on the secondary device whilst the main plot unfolds on the primary one (the TV). But I didn’t like that idea. I mean no one can concentrate fully on two things, and if the dialogue or scene was that important then surely you would just have it in the main show.

Then I struck upon the idea of security cameras. I might have been imagining it, but I remembered playing a Simpsons computer game where you could flick through CCTV footage of different places in Springfield and watch what the characters got up to. For some reason that stayed with me, and I realised that this concept could be a great way of using the Second Screen technology for ‘Super Chill’ without overshadowing the primary plot.

At various points in an episode a viewer would be able to see security camera footage of different locations in Portland , and the resulting information could shed light on certain characters or events that were happening “off-screen” away from the main characters. It would give us a glimpse into secondary characters’ lives, highlight the world of Portland, and most importantly be in keeping with the laid-back style of our show. And if you didn’t watch it then you wouldn’t miss out. It could be as interactive as you liked, and would perhaps mean viewers could watch more actively, encouraging them to explore their perceptions of characters and their motivations.

For the purposes of the competition we shot some example CCTV footage to go alongside Episode 4 from our first season. I think it turned out rather well I think. But you be the judge. Some of the CCTV moments may not make much sense plot wise, but the idea is that later in the season the viewer may come to piece together their significance, or maybe just enjoy a glimpse into a secondary character’s world. Obviously the Security Camera moments would appear on the second screen in reality but showing them all in this one clip gives you an idea of what we were going for…

Samsung and NYTVF clearly liked the concept and our show enough to get us into the final. But not quite enough to win the big bucks. To be honest I think they went with something a bit safer and more technology friendly in the end, which is understandable when there’s so much money on the line.

After my experiences though, I’m fairly certain that this kind of interactive viewer experience will become more common over the next few years, with second screens changing the way we view television. Personally I’m excited for the potential for viewers to get different experiences from the same show. Maybe the second screen content could change depending on who was watching it? Maybe this will allow television programmes to construct something of a broader canvas for us to enjoy, like good literature? Or maybe show’s like The Wire do this already without the need for another screen?

If you want to hear more of my thoughts, I was interviewed by Beet.tv in New York. You can see my interview here. Spoiler Alert – I mention Dickens and am probably way out of my depth.

However it plays out, you’d be foolish to ignore Second Screen potential. Although I’m uneasy with the constant drive towards technological advancement, I’d personally rather embrace it creatively than watch them become an unnecessary distraction or get left behind. So if you are developing a TV show then it might be worth considering how this technology could benefit your vision. After all, Gil Scott-Heron might be right. The revolution will not be televised. It will be shown on your second screen instead. Be ready.

You can watch the first season of ‘Super Chill’ without second screen content at http://superchill.tv.

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