What does “second screen multi-tasking” really mean?

We all do it.  Journalists love to write about it.  Apps like Get Glue and Viggle were created to capitalize on it.  NBC and Twitter partnered for it during the Olympics.  More recently NBCU and its parent company Comcast not only made an investment in it but also made a commitment to enhance more than 300 shows (which is not really as big a number as it sounds) to support it.  You can read all about that here.

Here’s the part I don’t get.  When I’m second screen multi-tasking, I’m catching up on email, I’m shopping, I’m reading, I’m playing WWF, I’m checking out new sites and apps, I’m facebooking and tweeting (back to these in a moment)…I am doing two very different things simultaneously (unless I’m watching “Homeland” or something else that demands and/or deserves my undivided attention or else I have to keep rewinding to see what I missed).  Sometimes I’m communicating via Facebook and Twitter to discuss what I’m watching – IF what I’m watching is an event I feel like talking about with my friends who share my interest.  Like who wore what on the red carpet or was robbed of an Oscar.  Or what a bad call the ref made during a Giants game.  Or what a kick-ass performance a band gave on the Grammy’s.  Event TV.  That’s what drives my “talking” and “sharing” on the smaller screen about what’s happening on the bigger screen. But still, my primary focus is what’s on the bigger screen since that’s where the action is.

Event TV is clearly in the death throes and is certainly not the same for everyone – hasn’t been for ages – and I know one person’s Oscar red carpet is another person’s water boarding.  I also know this is a generational thing, and the targeted generation is millenials.  I’ve seen some research (sloppy though it was – would love to see some solid research if it’s out there) but I’ve also watched teens parked in front of the TV and focus the majority of their attention on texting with their friends.  And I’ve also been yelled at if I made the tiniest peep during “Gossip Girl” or some other show that is their equivalent of “Homeland.”

Question, then, is what do increasingly sophisticated second screen apps and websites really accomplish?  I applaud experimentation, particularly when it comes to reaching out to digital natives who are multi-taskers, big on sharing, and have generally thrown all that has historically been held sacred about media consumption patterns out the window.  But how do the economics work when even the digital dimes generated by online advertising far outweigh today’s mobile pennies, and the cost of creating these apps is significant? And what if your friends aren’t using an app or even watching a show at the same time you are when interacting with them is a huge part of the reason why you’re there?  (Can remedy that with a quick text but apparently that’s old school technology.) This feels like sticking Mr. Potato Head’s ear in his mouth and his eye ball where his nose goes – it’s fun for a few minutes but after a while even a five-year old loses interest and runs off to play with her friends.  Taking a bunch of tools that already exist – social, gamification, voting, interactive advertising, etc. –  putting them all in one tool box, and calling them a brand new way to fix stuff is not a brand new way to fix stuff.

For some additional information, check out the results of a newly released study from Bravo. The focus is largely on how to make second screens profitable for networks and advertisers, but this quote says it all:  “We haven’t seen that version of research done around second screening — what is it you [the user] want out of a second screen device.”