For Susan Brannigan, watching television is a community experience, even though she’s usually home alone when she does it.
Brannigan — an Annapolis, Maryland legal researcher — rarely turns on her TV without also booting up her laptop computer. As she watches news, sports, and other shows, she converses online with fellow viewers and tweets her reactions to what she’s seeing.
It’s a trend the television industry has labeled “two-screen viewing,” and it’s become so common that networks and program producers are beginning to design websites and mobile apps tailored to people using TV and the Internet at the same time.
“I started doing it because I was by myself watching TV, and it makes me feel like I’m not in a complete vacuum,” Brannigan said. “Sometimes I get into more personal-like relationships on Twitter because I find that I have interests in common with the people I’m tweeting with.”
Indeed, Brannigan’s tweets sound a lot like the banter you’d hear if friends were watching TV together. “Yep. It’s possible to support gun rights but still support moderate gun control laws,” she wrote in response to an interview on her favorite news program, MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.”
“The Pats are better than this. All the same, I love the onside kick,” she tweeted as the New England Patriots fell to the New York Jets in an NFL playoff game last month.
And a couple weeks ago, there was this query: “Who’s the band ending Letterman? Anybody?”
“It’s the cheapest form of entertainment — sitting in front of the TV and having pseudo companions on the computer,” Brannigan said in a phone interview.
Two-screen viewing with an iPad
The Nielsen Company estimates that almost 60 percent of television viewers use TV and the Internet simultaneously at least once a month. The findings don’t reveal how many are looking at Web content specifically related to the shows they’re watching (as opposed to, say, shopping online or checking their e-mail). But TV programmers are eagerly expanding their reach onto the second screen.
The Oxygen cable network now allows the audience to chat online with reality show participants during telecasts. Viewers of last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards were invited to go to the Web to view live video from backstage, the makeup room and other locations.
And Nielsen joined with ABC last week to unveil an iPad app for the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” Using the iPad’s microphone, the app detects when the show is playing on a nearby TV and delivers episode-specific content — cast biographies, viewer polls, and background information related to each scene. (“Surgeons can operate on the brain when the patient is awake because the actual brain doesn’t have pain receptors,” I learned during last week’s episode.)
“There is great interest in this,” Nielsen’s Matt O’Grady said in a phone interview. “We’re speaking with many other networks about getting program engagement like this, so I think this could really take off.”
Last month, the “Rachel Maddow Show” debuted one of the first iPad applications that contemplates two-screen viewing of a news program. Among the app’s features is an online “watch party,” which invites viewers to share tweets with each other and with the show’s producers during the hour Maddow is on the air. After the show, users can watch archived video and read archived tweets.
“There’s a lot of relaying and reacting,” senior editor Will Femia said. “The Maddow community and the atmosphere that surrounds her show is important to making this possible.”
Last week’s watch parties were dominated by comments about Maddow’s coverage of the Egyptian turmoil (One sample: “By attempting to silence the press, Mubarak has exposed his own desperation. Good on Rachel Maddow for exposing what’s going on”), while Femia’s contributions included behind-the-scenes details from the show’s production staff. (“We hope to air the Uganda segment soon. It’s been written since Friday.”)
“The conversation is starting, rather than ending.”
Femia said MSNBC plans to introduce similar iPad apps for the network’s other shows, and he envisions a day when even traditional news programs like “NBC Nightly News” have interactive online companions. He said many of his colleagues are getting over their initial fear that providing online content could reduce the size of television audience.
“Informally, when people saw how attractive the iPad app is, comments were made like, ‘Holy crap, we’re doomed,’ ” Femia said. “People are going to watch the show on the app and all of our eyes will go away.”
But he said initial use suggests that the two-screen experience actually may increase television viewership, because Maddow’s fans relish the opportunity to watch the show live and participate in the simultaneous online discussion. And when Oxygen began its live online chats with reality show participants, the shows’ ratings increased.
Columbia University journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan predicts viewers increasingly will expect their favorite TV programs to offer interactive tools, especially as portable devices like iPads and smartphones become more popular and manufacturers incorporate the Internet into standard televisions.
And unlike the days when Walter Cronkite concluded his newscasts by confidently assuring us, “That’s the way it is,” Sreenivasan says many of today’s news consumers want to amplify or challenge what they’ve heard.
“Now when Katie Couric signs off, the conversation is starting rather than ending,” he said. “The idea that you’re going to take action on specific stories — and tweet and Facebook the ones you like — is going to be more ingrained in our culture and our technology.”
Susan Brannigan, the Maryland TV viewer, agreed she’s more likely to watch shows with vibrant online communities. She sends out dozens of tweets each month about things she sees on Maddow’s program, and she said there even are times when she and her sister watch TV in the same room and keep typing.
“During the State of the Union address, we both were tweeting when we were watching it,” Brannigan said. “We were already having a discussion about what we were seeing, and we were tweeting and reading. It gets pretty intense.”