Written by Internet, Technology, TV

Two Screen TV

At the end of Sherlock on Sunday I picked up my phone and pulled up Twitter to see what everyone had been saying about it. Since I’d watched it live, there was a lot of #sherlock activity. Amongst people I follow it was very popular. That’s not surprising – it’s excellent!
But then I started scrolling down through the older Tweets, and I realised that many people had been busy Tweeting throughout the programme.
Not that I was actually surprised by this. People Tweet during just about anything these days. But it has made me think a little about the good and bad of using social media in alongside television.
Television producers are now more and more thinking about “two screen” programmes. Or at the very least, they’re being asked to think about utilising it. That might mean something as simple as putting a hashtag onscreen at the start of your show, or having some kind of interactive element to programme for viewers at home. Playing along with a gameshow answering your own questions, or being able to view live stats for a sports event without needing to wait for the programmes’ producers to choose when to display them.
So far in the UK, on-screen hashtags have mostly been limited to non-fiction programming, be it Have I Got New For You, live sports coverage, or Question Time. But in the US, sitcoms now regularly have their own hashtags, and there are instances of stars of the programmes Tweeting throughout the show. (Mind you, US networks are happy to promote other shows during the show you’re currently watching. ITV does this a bit, but I don’t watch an awful lot of ITV outside of sport and drama, and they don’t do it in dramas. The BBC learnt their lesson after an ill-conceived promo during Doctor Who in 2010.)
Now comes news that Sky is partnering with Zeebox, a tool specifically developed for social interaction with other viewers during TV shows.
But this all leads me to ask the question – how are we supposed to actually watch these shows?
Does viewer engagement in social media work well with big live event and reality shows? Certainly. It can definitely increase your engagement with the shows, and your enjoyment of them. These programmes lend themselves to it well. There are frequent intervals – during the performances for example – which allow you an opportunity to engage. If you’re not paying attention to a presenter’s link, it’s unlikely that you’ll lose the thread of what’s happening. These programmes are already asking you to pick up the phone, so why not Tweet or get on Facebook at the same time?
And for producers and stations, these programmes work even better. You need to be watching live. That means bigger viewing numbers from the live broadcast, and on commercial television, no opportunity to fast forward through the ads.
But beyond that relatively narrow band of programming, I’m really not so sure. Live sport works well, and perhaps there are some cogent points of view being discussed in less than 140 characters during Newsnight or Question Time. But that’s where it ends for me.
If you’re making a drama series, don’t you actually want viewers to, well, watch your programme. Indeed they might actually need to concentrate a bit.
Clearly, how much any given series requires you to give it your full attention can vary. Some series, like the archetypal police procedurals have to work on the basis you tune in and tune out at various points, and soaps also have to work on the basis that you’re not necessarily paying attention 100% of the time.
That’s led to a style of programme-making that sees very short scenes with plenty of repeated plot exposition. You’ll especially notice it during US dramas made for one of the networks where “act breaks” are a significant part of the show’s structure. Two cops sitting in their car or doing a bit of walking and talking, telling each other what they already know are a part of the structure. The audience might have been distracted! And we don’t want them to lose interest altogether because they now don’t know what’s going on!
Of course we’ve always had distractions in our homes, from those annoying questions from other members of your family who wants to know who that blonde woman is, to the phone ringing, or just eating our meals in front of the box. But I wonder if the likes of Twitter and Facebook aren’t someone more demanding of our attention?
For a start, in the past you could have carried out your conversation with someone else in the room, or on the phone, while still looking at the screen. And these days, if someone phones me, I can “live-pause” what I’m watching anyway.
Funnily enough, one of the things the recent spate of sub-titled fiction has brought to light is that, unless you’re fluent in Danish, you really can’t do anything during The Killing or Borgen apart from watch the programme and pay attention. Anything less and you’re probably going to be lost.
But in general, if writers and producers are acknowledging that substantial portion of their audience are being otherwise “distracted” then we run the risk of further “dumbing down” our programmes, and writing them for a highly distracted audience. And that will probably lead to less engagement.
Now some may be brilliant polymaths who are able to absorb all the subtleties of the drama they’re watching, while at the same time carrying out several simultaneous conversations on Twitter, without missing a beat. But I suspect that this isn’t the case for most of us.
So instead, you’re either missing nuances in the drama, and not fully appreciating it, or the writers have fashioned it to take account of the second screen, and made it “idiot proof”.
My worry is that writers and producers are now having to make their shows for an audience that has a kind of collective Attention Deficit Disorder. Simpler plots; lots more exposition; scenes that last less than 30 seconds; black and white characterisation.
Watch the average daytime or early evening “factual” programme on any of the main channels, and you’ll know the score:
coming up;
segment of show;
still to come;
another segment;
coming after the break;
next time…;
The same bit of footage from the fourth segment of the show will have been shown about five times during the course of it.
Is that what we want from all our television programming?
In summary – for TV drama, put the laptop/tablet/mobile down, and just watch (Unless it’s during an ad-break. And having written this blog, I’ll get back to the football I’m watching).