2screen: audience shapes, split attention and some diverting randomness

Our friends at Mint Digital hosted an entertaining evening at Conway Hall last Thursday with some super smart folks talking about the phenomenon of the second screen and its relationship with TV viewing: 2Screen - Make an event out of TV.

Split Attention -- cartoon by Dar from FaceUp Studio

Illustration credit: "Split Attention", Dar Freeland, http://www.faceupstudio.com/blahg/

A quick summary

Thing 1: Audience attention shapes are shifting and broadcasters have to work out how to fit into these new paradigms.

Thing 2: When designing for the second screen, be prepared to accept how much and what type of attention your audience is going to give it.

Thing 3: Live sport represents a massive opportunity for second screen offerings.

Thing 4: TV Stories are made great by the shared experience of the audience. The second screen has a big part to play here.

The in-depth replay

Up on the stage were Matt Locke from Channel4, Margaret Robertson from Hide and Seek,  two dudes pitching their live football second screen offering: Tim Morgan from Picklive (who has a lovely Welsh baritone) and Utku Can from MintDigital with LivePitch and finally Kevin Slavin from Area/Code.

The shape of  viewer attention is shifting

Matt Locke kicked off the evening with a look at how audience attention is changing as a growing number of viewers watch TV shows whilst using their laptops/Smartphones.

As viewers create new attention shapes, Locke said the challenge for broadcasters is to figure out how to work with these new paradigms, with the understanding that different types of programming result in different responses and expectations from the audience. How can broadcasters start to tell stories that are based around these new shapes?

And importantly, what are they?

1. Live, synchronous shapes

TV still trumps the internet when it comes to delivering live, mass experiences to an audience of millions. And Locke had a couple of interesting examples to illustrate how the two-screen element comes in to play.

A springing lamb

Photo credit: http://pixdaus.com/single.php?id=190982, Kev

BBC2's Lambing Live might seem an unlikely candidate for mention here and my first thought was that the wisdom behind its selection was that it was a fairly low-risk (read: not very popular?) property to experiment with. In reality, it attracted 2.6 million viewers to its second episode. It seems folks just can't get enough of cute animals, and the nation's favourite Head Girl, Kate Humble, garnered a lot of comments on her blog.

Locke also cited Channel4's most recent reality TV offering, Seven Days, as a bold experiment in the interaction between programming and audience participation. Interestingly, he seemed to suggest that it has been more popular within the TV industry than with ordinary viewers. Commissioners are excited by the programme's approach; hopefully a greater number of viewers will pick it up and run with it too.

Channel4's Seven Days

He said producing content for just-in-time broadcast on the back of viewer suggestions made for stressful but exhilarating programme-making. It'll be interesting to see how many more broadcast experiments come out in the next twelve months.

He added that a couple of keys to success lie in the interactions broadcasters enable. First, leave holes that people can manoeuvre around in, let viewers move between platforms. And second, make sure that there are strong calls to action from web to TV and vice versa.

2. 'Cult' shapes

Programmes such as LOST, Mad Men and The Sopranos engender cultish devotion in viewers and all have seen examples of fan-created off-shoots. Locke pointed out that it's not just about following the trending topics on twitter during transmission, but about viewers placing themselves in the world of the show, creating their own cult around the dramatic proposition.

He talked about this type of programming as a viewer's indulgence, something that they luxuriate in or binge on (see Tellywonk's Lost Series 1 binge). 

Locke recommended Jonathan Gray's writing on fan culture, in particular Show Sold Separately which looks at the experience around cult dramas, films and properties.

3. Factual shapes

Factual programming usually takes its form from one of the following: stories, campaigns, missions or games. 

Locke talked about how Embarrassing Bodies was a perfect two-screen experience, with viewers making the most of the relative anonymity the web affords to share stories about their embarrassing physical conditions, and get support from other people. (I met the show's online producer outside in the break and he reckons his exposure to the programme's content puts his knowledge on par with a General Practitioner graduating in 1964.)

Another Channel 4 project, Battlefront brings 14-21 year olds together on TV and online to campaign about the things that matter to them.

Channel 4's Battlefront

With only 805 followers on Facebook, it's still at the early experimental phase and its development will be watched with interest. It would be fascinating to see what could happen with a mash-up between Battlefront and Vinspired's volunteering platform -- breaking away from the programme support paradigm and hooking into initiatives aimed at mobilising the same age group.

Locke pointed to the BBC's Virtual Revolution, presented by Aleks Krotoski, as a strong example of a programme that reaches across platforms to drive community mission and a shared goal. In this case, the creation of a crowd-sourced story of the internet. 

And finally, games -- apparently Channel 4's 1066 game generated 21 million plays (from 10 million uniques) compared to 3 million viewers of the TV show. Such is its popularity that it pips Wikipedia's entry about the battle of 1066 in Google search results.

4. Asynchronous shapes

Characterised by snacking behaviour, asynchronous shapes are the hardest for broadcasters to get their heads around, according to Locke. When programming is traditionally commissioned on a 8 x 30-minute or 6 x 55-minute basis, how do makers shift to telling stories and creating content that can be consumed in 12 x 5-minute snippets?

Games like Words with Friends and Farmville were the examples he gave of asynchronous social actions that are performed and consumed in short spaces of time, with the latter averaging 70 minutes of game-play per user, per week. 

That's a tricky one for linear media to get into. 

Designing for the second screen

Margaret Robertson from Hide and Seek was next up on the stage and gave a very diverting talk about her approach to the second screen as a games designer. As a complete games ignoramus, I didn't get some of the in-jokes but that didn't matter -- Robertson spoke engagingly about the challenges of dealing with split attention.

The main thought I took from her talk was 'Brains not screens', i.e. it's fairly irrelevant what device or platform people are consuming your content on. It's more important to focus on the experience your content offers and how it engages consumers' attention.

Brains not screens

As she pointed out, most presentations are designed for split attention (what's on the screen isn't what's being said) and we've all been masters of it since the days gazing out of the window at primary school.

I share her frustration with programmes that show you what they're about to show you, then recap it, then trail the next bit, then recap etc. But then Robertson suggested that it's a deliberate tactic to capture the split-attentionard's attention. That's why X-factor shows you the same thing five times. And it's another reason why I don't watch it...

Here are her strategies for designing for split attention:

1. Try to keep all of their attention on the same thing, unify their focus. 
Or split your thing across their screens, so that they are still completely engaged but across both/all screens.

2. All your stuff, but not all the same thing
Let them use their screens to customise your thing. World of Warcraft does this very successfully -- everyone coming to it gets something different from it. Alternatively, use different screens to make your thing into different things. In other words, look to capture 100% of their attention, but across multiple devices.

3. Only half your stuff - design for half their attention
Or use what you're making to change what they're doing the rest of the time.

Live sport = dream opportunity for second screen activity

Tim Morgan (Picklive) and Utku Can (LivePitch) put on a very entertaining double act, showcasing their respective responses to live football. The use of the RTRTG was a stroke of theatrical genius (Real-Time Random Topic Generator) which enabled discussion around the main features of Picklive and LivePitch.

Picklive and LivePItch

I'm not a football fan, but if you are (or if you're interested in how real-time/live events can translate to the second screen), you should check these out.

The best second screen stuff 'slides off' TV 

Kevin Slavin from Area/Code wrapped up the talks with a showcase of the two-screen work that his company has been involved in for the past five years. Area/Code's strength is in creating games or playful experiences to support shows, and it was pretty instructive to see how their projects have led the way in the land of the second screen.

Slavin's new venture is Starling TV, a social TV platform that will get all meta on the audience, making them aware of themselves, the audience, and creating 'a real-time watercooler'.

His talk was a neat expression of a single thought: that TV shows only become truly great when the sense of shared experience comes to the fore. Just as theatrical performances are made great by the frisson that zips around the live audience at key dramatic moments, TV audiences get ever more excited when they tap into the buzz generated by their fellow viewers.

I don't know whether Slavin's written any books on this stuff, but he's got an academic's skill for encapsulating a theory. He talked about the use of canned laughter, aka 'Laughter From Nowhere' (LFN) in TV as a means to tricking audiences into laughing themselves. He showed a clip from Friends with and without the laugh-track: someone sitting next to me commented that without the LFN, it was like watching a scene from Beckett.

Amid some prime geek fodder about Charley Douglas, the inventor of the 'laff box', Slavin put forward the idea that now that the social web offers up the opportunity to bring TV audiences together, LFN might start to die out and be replaced by real laughter.

Or as he had it: 'Laughter from Nowhere' becomes 'Laughter from Everyware' (referencing Adam Greenfield's book Everyware).  

A smart close to an interesting evening. I hung around for some of the questions, but the combination of generous booze intake (thanks, Mint!) and a roving mike made for a slightly rambling end to what was otherwise a very worthwhile night.

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