The ways in which we consume and experience television are rapidly changing thanks to technology. But is it for the better?
The way we access television has changed dramatically in the last half century, from the communal marvel that drew crowds in department store windows to a white noise machine present in every bedroom and kitchen. A study just released by the NPD Group shows a new development in TV-viewing, with 87% of people surveyed reporting they used at least one other screen-based device while watching television, either laptop, tablet, or computer phone.
A number of companies have tried to turn this habit into a profitable business. Viggle is an iOS and Android app that gives users points for logging in to its service when they're watching a particular show, or for answering questions about a show while watching. These points tie into a rewards system that can count toward products from Gap, Barnes & Noble, and Royal Caribbean among others. Zeebox is a mobile and browser app that lets users organize chat rooms around different television showsculled from email contacts or Facebook friends to communicate to others while watching.
It is now possible to watch an episode of Mad Men, while reading a criticism of it on your iPad, while intermittently sending text messages about it to your friend, with a Twitter post interspersed for good measure. This is not an aberration of the form, but the natural evolution of electronic media.
Nintendo heavily invested in the idea of second screen viewing with their new living room console Wii U, which plays games on a television through a controller that has a six inch touchscreen imbedded in it. The console also serves as a television streaming device, supporting services like Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, and Netflix, all coordinated into a single interface called Nintendo TVii. One of the secondary features of the system is its ability to mediate disagreements about what to watch on the main television by allowing a person to play a game entirely on the controller's touchscreen while freeing the television for other purposes.
While the device seems to organize all of the prevailing desires of media consumers in the early 21st Century, Nintendo has struggled to sell the system in the post-Holiday rush, with monthly sales between 50 and 60,000 units in North America, a figure lower than any previous generation of game consoles in their worst selling month. Nintendo's struggles with sales have been attributed to a lack of competitiveness when compared to the feature-rich iPad, an unimpressive launch catalog of games the majority of which were already playable on other systems, and a dearth of new games well into the spring. One less obvious reason may be its nature as a device that matches the experience of television with the second screen one is accustomed to using as a distraction from it.
One of Marshall McLuhan's predictions for electronic media was that it would break down its viewers patience, sense of continuity and connection between subjects. Everything in electronic media would strive for instantaneity. "It's not what you say in the telephone, it's the fact that the telephone service is environmental," he said, condensing his view into an aphoristic distinction. Television has evolved as a similarly environmental way, first with the limited spectrum of broadcast channels before fragmenting into a wide number of uses that include home videos, a buffet of cable channels, videogames, public service announcements, and more.
This transition slowly turned watchers into foragers, for whom the time commitment to one form of content became a reminder of the vast expanses of content not yet experienced. As the NPD reports 47% of viewers use their second screens to learn more about the show or actors they are watching, a subconscious sign the meaning of the show's content is insufficient, the viewer has some yearning to not just experience it, but to completely absorb it in all its other aspects so that it can be moved on from.
This hunger has helped foster a strange culture of television recaps and near instantaneous criticism of serials, unleashing every manner of deconstructionist interpretation on them. It is now possible to watch an episode of Mad Men, while reading a criticism of it on your iPad, while intermittently sending text messages about it to your friend, with a Twitter post interspersed for good measure. This is not an aberration of the form, but the natural evolution of electronic media, embodied in television, the discarnate mind made to hunger information and experiences from all nodal points outside itself, developing a dependency on the environmental network more than the screen itself. And ultimately, what is being interrupted is not the content carried through the medium, but our thought process about it. Discovering and accessing someone else's conclusions only contributes to our own inner search for conclusive beliefs that we begin to fear will be unattainable without access to the network itself. One way to access it begins to seem like it's not enough, and soon two access points may feel pretty insubstantial too.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.