The Oxford Dictionaries editors just came out with their 2013 “word of the year.” By now, you’ve probably read that the word “selfie” took top prize as the trendiest word out there. Sometimes the editors choose a phrase rather than just a single word, and had that been the case this year, my vote would have gone to “second screen.”

A second screen user? Or first?Now, you may think my current research as a Reynolds Fellow, looking into second screen news distribution, would color my choice of this phrase as one of the most important of 2013. That could be true, but I would contend the concept of having a second screen present while watching television has really grown from the nerdy fringe to the mainstream in the past 12 months.

And research backs that up. Figures from earlier this year show that as many as 85 percent of us have used another device with a screen while watching TV at least once a month, and 40 percent of us do it all the time. That second screen use is split pretty evenly between smartphones and tablets.

All this talk of second screens has me thinking more and more about the first screen—television. I’ve been a first screen content producer for going on 34 years now and I can tell you the first screen has been a great place to be. Because of its reach, I know the content I have put on the first screen for all these years has been seen—seen by a lot of people. Television provided a way to share social experiences via media long before today’s social media existed – we called it “water cooler conversation.”

The discussions started at work or school by what we all saw on television the night before. And television has provided comfort in the form of being a video night-light. Most of us under 60 turn on the television when we come home, letting its sound and light fill our homes whether we plan to actively watch it or not. These attributes have made it a powerful first (and for many years only) screen for decades.

But now I’ve begun to wonder about this ordinal designation. If TV is presumed to be the first screen, what’s the actual second screen? We toss out the term to refer to any device used while watching television: smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, watch—the list goes on. It’s a convenient way to say “the screen we’re using to consume video, sound, text, and graphics that’s not a TV.” But what if we took the designation literally. Here’s my typical evening screen use, ranked from the place my eyes spend most of their time on down:

  • First screen: Laptop computer (doing e-mail and accessing web pages)
  • Second screen: Television (displaying content from cable TV)
  • Third screen: Smartphone (accessing apps related to work and entertainment, texting)
  • Fourth screen: Tablet (accessing apps related to work and entertainment)
  • Fifth screen: Desktop computer (acting as server for content for TV and tablet)

My 22-year-old daughter, done with college and moving to California next month, has a different order and even a different use of the television. For her, each screen is about on-demand content:

  • First screen: Smartphone (texting and social media)
  • Second screen: Television (displaying on-demand content from Roku and Apple TV)
  • Third screen: Laptop computer (shopping and casual browsing)

Now, her 26-year-old brother, already living in southern California, has yet another order. He’s cut the cable (never installed it, actually), and lives entirely off his Internet connection. His typical evening screen use pattern:

  • First screen: Television (displaying gaming system through which he also gets streaming entertainment content)
  • Second screen: Smartphone (texting, social media, and entertainment apps)
  • Third screen: Laptop computer (work and casual browsing)

Just viewing these generational preference differences in my own family got me to wondering about that term again, “second screen.” The television is the second screen in two-thirds of this very unscientific survey, with a different first screen for each user. As a content producer, that has to matter to me, right?

I have prided myself as a first screen content producer, knowing I was reaching one of the largest journalism audiences possible with my TV newscasts. We know the Millennial Generation is not terribly interested in news content. We also know (through the snapshot above, as well as a lot of serious research) that generation is not sitting down to watch traditional television programs at a scheduled time. But that’s how we’re distributing our newscasts on TV. The fear of losing younger TV news viewers is not new. But the solution to fix it may come in the order of screens.

My current research, and much of what we have changed in the KOMU newsroom in recent years, divides the producing duties to distribute content by screen. Traditional newscast producers are delivering content to the TV screen. Digital producers in our newsrooms are delivering content to the laptop, desktop, and mobile screens. The RJI project with which I am now involved will have yet another producer deliver content to tablets in a brand new way. All of these delivery systems tap a central content pool, basically squeezing that content into the right size and shape to fit down the pipe to the screen on which users receive it.

The next newsroom iteration will come when the producers for each screen begin to affect the way the content is collected and stored. Reporters have long answered to producers in those producer-driven TV newsrooms that I have often criticized are more about selling the hamburgers than cooking the hamburgers. That approach serves multiple hours of TV newscasts that repeat content often, all as a platform on which to deliver commercials.

But a producer-driven approach works differently in a world with no first screen. Sure, there’s a need to monetize each screen to pay for the content collection. I’m not denying that. And while it may at first sound scary for a reporter to be working for one producer who’s delivering to television, another who’s delivering to phones, and another who’s putting out content specifically designed for tablets—all at the same time—I do see a wonderful model of efficiency there, mainly because the tradition of television as the first screen has created a terribly inefficient system to create content for the other screens.

If we lose our intrinsic need to rank screens from first to last, we also lose our bias when it comes to how our content should look. While working on this project with RJI, people often talk to me about my “second screen” research. I usually respond with a question, “Why is it second?” Few have an answer for that.

There’s plenty more to think about here, and I’ll write about that as my thoughts come together. I invite and encourage your comments. I also invite you to do what I’m doing. I’m arranging my screens in a circle for now, where none is first, none is second, and none is last. You should give it a try yourself.

Stacey Woelfel  
Director of Aerial Journalism


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