The rollout of Smart TV has been accompanied by loads of buzzwords. Of these, Second Screen just might be the buzz-iest. But what is Second Screen, and what, if anything, makes it buzz-worthy?

Second Screen defines a multimedia experience that happens in parallel with a main program being watched on TV (the First Screen). Here’s how it usually works. You launch an app on your tablet or smartphone that provides extra content related to the program being watched—an episode synopsis and cast/crew info, for example. But that’s not all. Second Screen apps can also let you browse program listings from your TV service provider, as well as discover new content. Some apps have a social component that enables real-time interaction with other viewers, while others provide remote control of your TV’s functions. We’ll detail the ways in which Second Screen apps work to extend and enhance the TV viewing experience after the break.

TV Guide

A key function of Second Screen apps is content exploration and personalization. For example, two popular apps, NextGuide and Fan, furnish all the info you need to know about current and past TV shows, including episode descriptions and cast bios. More important, they let you search for programs across a range of sources, including cable and satellite providers and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes and Amazon Instant. Want to see that particularly intense episode of the Walking Dead your friends were talking about last night? Launch the app, search the Walking Dead guide, and check if the episode will soon be re-broadcasted, or can be streamed instantly from Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon/iTunes, etc. While you’re at it, browse the other horror-related shows, check their Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes ratings/reviews and create a watchlist so that the app can send you a notification when a show you’re interested in is airing.

Two other apps, BuddyTV and Zeebox, not only let you browse program listings and info on your tablet or phone, but provide a social component via comment streams, “check-ins” or program-specific discussion “rooms.” And BuddyTV has the added bonus of letting you control networked devices like Samsung Smart TVs and AT&T U-verse, DirecTV or TiVo DVRs so you can tune in a program you’re browsing or set up a recording from within the app.



Remote Central

Speaking of program-browsing and remote control, most TV service providers, including Time Warner Cable, Comcast, AT&T, DirecTV and Dish, provide their own branded apps that let you browse listings and change channels or program recordings on DVRs. (This is a more limited, though ultimately more useful, Second Screen application.) Some apps provide customization features to make the experience of navigating a huge number of channels more manageable. A number also let you stream programs directly to your tablet or phone from within the app.

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A related development that’s come about in the past year is streaming apps that use the DIAL (Discovery and Launch) protocol to enable “hand-off” of a program being viewed on a portable device to a Smart TV, Blu-ray player or media streamer. DIAL was jointly developed by Netflix and Google, so it should come as no surprise that the first two apps to feature it are Netflix and YouTube. This is how it works: After selecting a program to watch from within the app, you press an icon that calls up a list of devices linked to the same network as your portable to screen the program on. Once selected, the device automatically launches the same app and starts streaming the program. At present, hardware support for DIAL on the TV side includes all the major players like Samsung, Sony, LG, Panasonic, and Vizio. DIAL is also supported by Google TV devices including the company’s new Chromecast streaming stick, and Roku reportedly plans to soon add the feature to its hardware.

Extra Features

Remember BD-Live and PIP on Blu-ray? Neither does anyone else. That’s mainly because Blu-ray disc producers never did much to push those capabilities of the format. But some content that normally would have been showcased via BD-Live or PIP eventually found a second home in Second Screen apps designed to sync up with Blu-ray playback.

Disney, an early promoter of Second Screen apps for Blu-ray, first launched the concept with its Bambi: Diamond Edition release. Other recent discs of note that feature Second Screen apps include The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel’s The Avengers, Prometheus, and Iron Man 3. In most of these cases, the app launches extra content such as cast/crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and production design sketches to supplement the movie that’s unfolding on the main screen. A number of recent TV productions also come with their own Second Screen apps, including the Masters golf tournament and the Showtime network staples Dexter, Homeland, and Masters of Sex.

Who gives a Tweet?

According to a recent report by the research firm the NPD group, up to 87% of tablet or smartphone-owning households use their devices while watching TV. But the report goes on to say that what they’re mostly doing is looking up info about a particular actor on websites like IMDB or Wikipedia, or using social networks like Twitter or Facebook to comment on what they’re watching. So while Second Screen apps designed for content discovery and program guide browsing are apparently proliferating, it appears that most viewers are choosing to instead scan for other movies that Cameron Diaz has appeared in, or to fire off a tweet about how that kid blew it on American Idol. Second Screen might be here to stay, but it might be a while yet before the mundane reality catches up with the buzz.

—Al Griffin/ Email


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