Katherine Boehret

Using Another Screen to Interact With the TV

This week families will gather to celebrate the holidays over home-cooked meals, gift exchanges and fights over the TV remote.

That last annual tradition may be dying off, thanks to changing technology habits. More people now watch TV while simultaneously using second screens like tablets, laptops and smartphones. A recent Nielson study showed 70% of tablet owners and 68% of smartphone owners said they use their devices while watching television.

I, too, find myself watching TV in this multi-tasking mode. This week, I’ve been testing three free apps that aim to get viewers more engaged in shows as they watch them on TV. Ironically, these apps require people to look away from the TV and at their second screens, but in my experience, this actually worked. I tried Yahoo’s IntoNow, which runs on iPhone and iPad and Android smartphones; Showtime Social, which works on the iPad; and Shazam, which works on nearly all mobile platforms, including Apple, RIM, Android and Windows Phones.

I had fun with these apps, and each uses a different method to draw in users. IntoNow and Showtime Social poll viewers during shows, Shazam displays behind-the-scenes footage, and IntoNow displays related social-network updates and live discussions. The apps virtually introduced me to fans of shows I liked, reminding me of my freshman year of college when I piled into a dorm room with 20 people (many of whom I didn’t know) to watch the series finale of “Felicity”: The show got more interesting in the company of other fans.

DSOLUTION

The Showtime Social iPad app polled ‘Dexter’ viewers to gauge reactions to the show.

Unfortunately, some aspects of these apps aren’t designed to work with pre-recorded shows—and more viewers, especially the ones likely to use a second screen, are recording their TV these days. Showtime Social must be used as a show airs. Shazam works with pre-recorded TV shows, but to work with commercials, it must be used live or for as long as an ad campaign is still running. And though IntoNow will work with a pre-recorded show, discussions and related Twitter content aren’t live when you use the app after the show airs.

I started with Yahoo’s IntoNow app on the iPad. It has a green TV icon in the top left corner that, when I tapped it, listens to whatever is playing. Using its patented SoundPrint technology, IntoNow figured out what was on by matching it against a database of over 160 million hours of TV.

I hesitated to use IntoNow while watching my pre-recorded shows, especially the season finale of “The Amazing Race,” for fear of accidentally seeing something that would spoil the ending. The app asks users who contribute to discussions to mark their comments with a spoiler alert symbol, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

DSOLUTION

While watching a football game, IntoNow provided expanded statistics and other team news.

IntoNow was a real help while watching football: Statistics showed up in Game Info, and other team news appeared in an Around the League section. It also brought in Twitter updates from the @NFL_Football Twitter account. But when I paused the game for 20 minutes to fold laundry, I didn’t want to look at the app because it showed the live score.

IntoNow failed when I turned on CNN for news of Kim Jong Il’s death. The app thought I was watching the regularly scheduled program, a show called “Black in America.” IntoNow’s vice president said the app has trouble with unplanned programming, something the company is addressing.

The Showtime Social iPad app only works when a show is airing, and it prompts viewers to share their reactions to the show. I watched an episode of “Dexter” with this app opened, and questions popped up every so often, polling the audience. These questions were playful enough that even someone like me, who hadn’t watched “Dexter” in two years, could answer them. More thought-provoking questions delved into symbolism and future predictions.

When Showtime Social wasn’t asking polling questions, it prompted me to comment on how the show made me feel. I tapped on an icon under the “I am…” description and chose from happy, shocked, sad or angry. A drop-down menu within each emotion offered several iterations; the “angry” category had 13 emotions to choose from.

DSOLUTION

Viewers using Shazam could buy things that they saw on USA Network’s ‘Covert Affairs.

Shazam is an app known best for identifying songs as they play, but it also works with movies, TV shows, ads and music videos to display extra features. To use it with TV, the Shazam logo appears on screen during shows to remind users that they can use the app with a tablet or smartphone; in the case of short commercials, this moment passes quickly.

Since many shows are on hiatus around the holidays, it was hard to find live examples for testing this app. But past examples include the Shazam logo appearing in an Old Navy commercial, and people who used Shazam while watching could get a free pair of jeans. It also worked with Oxygen’s “The Glee Project,” showing viewers the full version of judge’s deliberations if they tapped the Shazam button. And when Shazam was used with USA Network’s “Covert Affairs,” viewers could buy things that they saw on the show.

Instead of just watching TV, these apps help you get a lot more out of a show—as long as you’re watching live.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katherine.boehret@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

The Shazam app works with pre-recorded TV shows throughout the show. An earlier version of this column said Shazam only works when its logo appears on a TV screen.


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