One night this past June, 2.6 million people tuned into the cable network Bravo to watch the final episode of the third season of the reality series Real Housewives of New York City. While watching housewife LuAnn belt out her cringe-worthy single Money Can't Buy You Class, some viewers also fired up computers, jumped onto Bravo's website, and used an interactive feature called Talk Bubble to commune with fellow fans. They used the site's tools to share jokes on Twitter, update their Facebook status, and follow a "Tweet Heat" graphic that charted viewers' collective sentiment toward the housewives. Verdict: Stop singing!
By the end of the night, some 13,000 viewers had used Talk Bubble. That may not sound like a significant number, but in this golden age of attention deficit disorder, dual-screen viewers—that is, people who simultaneously watch TV and a second device such as a laptop, smartphone, or tablet—are a coveted demographic. A recent Nielsen study found that consumers now spend on average 3 hours and 41 minutes per month watching TV and browsing the Internet simultaneously and roughly three out of five TV viewers engage in two-screen consumption. In response, networks have rolled out Web features and mobile applications designed to capture tandem media consumers. "It's what people are doing anyway," says Lisa Hsia, the head of Bravo's digital operations. "Our users tend to adapt before us. We're just tapping into it."
Hsia says Bravo's encouragement of companion-viewing has, in short order, boosted digital ad sales. She declines to share specific numbers, but a Bravo spokesperson says the network's digital revenue during the first three quarters of 2010 has increased 53 percent from the same time period last year, thanks in large part to ad deals on the Talk Bubble page. "Digital operations are increasingly becoming a revenue driver in the Bravo business," says Hsia. "I've been here for five years, and I've never seen that before."
Bravo was one of the first to start experimenting with ways to monetize the two-screeners. In the spring of 2009, during the finale of the second season of Real Housewives of New York City, Bravo hosted its first "virtual viewing party" on its website. It featured some of the same social media tools as its successor, Talk Bubble, and provided exclusive online access to two of the series' stars. In essence, fans could watch the series while discussing it not only with friends across the country but also with the C-list celebrities themselves. In March 2010, Bravo formalized the experiment with Talk Bubble and eventually expanded it to several other Bravo shows, including Top Chef and its spin-off Just Desserts.
Cable channels such as Bravo covet two-screen consumers because they can essentially sell their attention to advertisers twice—once on TV and again online. Drive-in chain Sonic and pretzel maker Snyder's of Hanover were early sponsors. During a recent episode of Just Desserts, Bravo served up multiple scoops of Breyers ice cream ads, including traditional TV commercials, product placements within the show, and a display ad on Talk Bubble.
The rise of the two-screen consumer, at least in theory, is also helping to counter the threat of DVRs and watch-when-you-want online viewing sites such as Hulu and Netflix. Dual-screen viewers like to interact with fellow fans in real time, making them less likely to record a televised event on DVR. They tend to be a vocal bunch, and their bouts of mid-show Twitter sniping can motivate some fellow social media users to check out what is inspiring the hubbub. (Sample Talk Bubble tweet: "Oh my god, now Yigit is on the losing team!!! if he gets sent home I'm going to throw myself off a bridge.") Hsia says that Bravo's internal research found that during the final three episodes of the third season of Real Housewives of New York City, Talk Bubble caused an average of 250,000 additional viewers per episode to tune in. "Unquestionably, it does drive higher ratings," says Hsia. "When you talk about strategy for 2011 moving forward, it's no longer like the TV alone is driving it."
Networks are following suit. In September, CBS (CBS) introduced an iPad app to use while watching NFL football. ABC (DIS) unveiled a first-of-its kind iPad app for the network's new prime-time series My Generation that used the tablet's microphone to synchronize interactive features—such as polls, quizzes, and character bios—with specific moments of the show. (The app wasn't quite innovative enough to save the series, which was canceled after two episodes.) Like Bravo, many networks corral tweets and celebrities onto a single Web page or app. The CW has an expansive "Watch and Tweet" section on its website where, say, Gossip Girl fans can critique episodes and chat with series creator Josh Schwartz. MTV Networks has incorporated these kinds of opportunities into everything from its Video Music Awards to President Obama's speeches.
A number of startup tech companies, including Miso, Get Glue, and Philo are jockeying to become central venues for the new digital activities accompanying TV programs. Some are competing with the networks' own sites but hope eventually to collaborate with them. These companies lure viewers in part by awarding them virtual prizes for "checking in" to their favorite TV shows through websites or smartphone apps. "The networks are going to try and do this themselves," says Miso Chief Executive Officer Somrat Niyogi. "But ultimately, people will want one place to go to while they watch TV."
The bottom line: Networks are trying to profit from dual-screen viewers, who engage with shows online and on their smartphones and tablets.