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Why TV sites and apps should turn into second screens

When network and cable TV sites first appeared on the web, they existed for one reason: to promote their shows. In the last five years, they’ve also become entertainment hubs, offering shows on demand. And recently, many have added second-screen features that serve up related content and conversations that tie to shows on the air.

With just about anything new, it starts in the shadows, growing momentum in sideline experiments before taking center stage. Over the last several months, broadcast and cable nets have rolled out second-screen apps — from ABC to NBC — but they’ve kept them separate from their core TV apps. And there are a ton of co-viewing and social media features on TV websites, but they’re usually sub-sections of the shows themselves.

But with the tremendous potential of the second-screen — both for engaging viewers and opening up a tremendous new revenue stream through interactive advertising — I’ll argue that now is the time to make the second screen the home screen, not as an added feature, but as the core experience. (I’m not referring to TV news sites and apps, which clearly should focus primarily on covering news.)

When shows are on the air — especially first-run shows with active fan bases — TV websites should transform into real-time, synchronized screens in sync with the broadcast, surfacing compelling content and tying together viewer conversations. The same features should be built into the primary tablet and smart phone apps for broadcast and cable TV apps.

For example, if I punch up Fox.com during Glee, it should scream shared experience out of the gate, offering exclusive content and conversations I can’t get during DVR playback. (And exclusive enough to distinguish it from other second-screen apps or even Twitter.com). So much so, it should motivate me to make an appointment to watch it with my laptop, tablet or smart phone in front of me.

The second-screen is a whole new world of production. There’s an art (and a science, because of all the data that’s available) in producing synchronized content, advertising and community features that enhance, not distract viewers from the broadcast. The key here is a synchronized experience. It’s different from anything before it, and it’s creating an entire new industry.

Operationally, there are a lot of reasons why cable and broadcast networks haven’t brought the second-screen to the forefront, especially with mobile apps. For example, it’s easier for a white-label third-party to power a standalone app then integrate those features into a core app. There’s no second-screen production process. Time-delayed playback and time zones are always a struggle. There’s the ongoing question of whether viewers want apps for shows, networks or entertainment TV overall. And I’ll admit, the ratings correlation hasn’t been scientifically proven, so it’s hard to book serious costs against it. But early indications show that viewers will eat it up.

Twitter says it helps drive people back to shared experiences, back to linear TV — and there’s evidence to support it. Add exclusive synchronous content to the equation along with the promotional power of TV, and why wouldn’t you put the second screen on the home screen during primetime?

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