The second screen obsession

Hollywood has grown fixated on the second screen. The “second screen” refers to the other thing we’re paying attention to while watching television or movies – this could be a phone, tablet, or computer.

The industry fixates on the second screen because it feels threatened, and rightly so. In an era of alt-tab attention spans, fewer people are coming to long-form content by traditional means if they are coming at all. Between the actual dollars, and the perceived mental commitment, the cost of consuming content that is longer than your regular cat video on YouTube is not negligible.

Further, over the last 30+ years, as distribution channels have expanded (the movie multiplex, the 500+ cable television channels), quantity of content has increased while quality of content has decreased. Fortunately for Hollywood, this bad content didn’t have much to compete with in order to capture an audience.



In the late 1990s, we saw wide-spread consumer adoption of the Internet. And the rise of file sharing. And the slow-and-then-fast disruption of the recorded music industry.

Hollywood watched this happen.

Then came broadband. And suddenly it was easy to share and stream the larger video files that dialup couldn’t support. And Hollywood started to worry, mostly, and incorrectly, about piracy.

Then came Facebook. And suddenly there was a whole new type of content that was, in many cases, far more compelling than Hollywood’s. This content is always fresh, and, most importantly, it is free. This is social media.

Then came the iPhone. And suddenly consumers could take this new stream of social content with them wherever they went – including the couch and the movie theater.

And now we have arrived at the present model of consumer behavior where viewers are watching Hulu in one tab while they’re Facebooking in another, they’re playing Angry Birds on the couch while they’ve got ESPN on on the television, and they’re texting each other while they’re in the movie theater.

And, bizarrely, Hollywood’s reaction to this is: LET US OWN THIS NEW SCREEN.

Thus is born the “innovation group” at BigMediaCo. Thus do ex-producers decide to launch startups to “capture the second screen experience.” Thus does an entire industry begin to wonder if this Silicon Valley place might become “a thing.”

Every few weeks, I get pitched a second screen opportunity, mostly by people who are content creators in Hollywood. Most of these businesses provide access to bonus content related to the first-screen experience, allow viewers to socialize with other people who are also consuming the first-screen experience, or, most commonly, create new revenue streams related to the first-screen experience.

And it’s started to make me wonder… are we stupid?

The job of Hollywood is to create content (read: tell a story) that so delights an audience that the audience is willing to pay to consume this content. Why is Hollywood spending any time creating experiences to further distract the audience? Rather than fixate on the shiny new thing, shouldn’t Hollywood be doubling down on finding and telling incredible stories? Wouldn’t we put our second screens down in a heartbeat if we were actually being delighted by the content on the first screen?

Social media has made it nearly impossible to recoup the investment in bad content. Mediocre opening weekends of a bad movie thanks to a big marketing spend are no longer possible. Twitter kills a bad movie after the first few screenings on Friday. But content is still king. And good content spreads itself. Social media has also spawned a whole new consumer behavior: Incredible television can now be discovered and binge-viewed season-by-season online. (see: Downton Abbey).

Let’s pause. Let’s not take our eye off the ball. Let’s not pretend that the second screen is going to solve some underlying structural problems in the entertainment industry. Let’s instead be confident that we can tell wonderful stories, delight our audiences, and that in return our audiences will reward us with dollars and, more importantly, their undivided attention.




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