The future of the television is the iPad.
That was the overwhelming message at the TV of Tomorrow conference in New York, which saw executives and decision makers from across the television industry gather for a lively day of discussion and debate about the state and direction of their business. And almost all of that discussion revolved around the iPad, which has become interchangeably known as the "second screen." Apple may call its TV efforts a "hobby," but the TV industry is already making huge bets on iOS.
Tablet users were a dominant theme of the conference, which featured sessions titled "Measuring the Multiplatform Viewer" and "Second-Screen Content: Have We Created A Monster?" Barry Frey, a former Cablevision executive, opened a panel called "TV's New Gateway" by asking "How many of you are taking notes on the second screen?"
A room full of suits waved their iPads in the air.
"The experience of television is moving off the primary screen," said Dale Herigstad, chief interaction officer at design firm Possible. Viewers "are taking ownership with second screens." For an industry built on advertising, changing viewer habits present both a threat and opportunity as people pay less attention to the TV but more attention to their tablets. The potential is simply too massive to ignore: TVPlus co-founder Randy Shiozaki noted that people will spend 22 minutes of a 30-minute show with second screen apps open, and 38 minutes of a 60-minute show. "Within three years the primary metric that advertisers buy will be engagement," predicted Brad Pelo, CEO of popular TV app maker i.TV. Reinventing the TV and TV ads might generate a little more money, but creating an entirely new platform for ads opens up major secondary revenue streams.
A room full of suits waved their iPads in the air
That's put an enormous amount of pressure on content companies to build apps and create multi-screen experiences for their shows. "You have to be absolutely relevant on all the platforms," said Stephanie Otto, CEO of Emmy Award-winning design firm Brainstorm Communications. "You don't just want to hurl of bunch of information on the screen." But there are burgeoning trends developing: Dijit CEO Jeremy Toeman noted that the non-live shows that perform best with second screen apps tend to be lightweight fare like reality shows — you don't have to watch them closely while you use the iPad. "You can't just stop paying attention to CSI," he said.
"There's content everywhere. It's a mess. It's a total mess for consumers."
The explosion of second screen activity has created other challenges: there's no settled industry standard metric like Nielsen ratings for iPad apps, so measuring viewership consistently for advertisers is a major area of concern. And there's an enormous amount of app fragmentation for consumers, both because of technology and because of content. "There are things you simply can't say inside the NBC app," said TVplus' Shiozaki. "But they're still important." i.TV's Pelo sounded a similar concern, noting that TV programmers are either creating siloed content "deep in their own apps, and we get nothing except a Twitter feed... it doesn't scale." Anand Subramanian of startup NimbleTV was even more blunt. "There's content everywhere. It's a mess. It's a total mess for consumers."
But the challenges don't seem to be dissuading the industry from chasing the second screen opportunity — especially since tablets allow for much faster innovation than any currently available smart TV platform, all of which are tightly controlled by manufacturers. "It takes way too long to get something certified" for smart TVs, said Rich Foster, creative director at A Different Engine. "If it's going to take four months to get something to market, it's never going to get past the concept." Compared to the cable companies and TV manufacturers, Apple's App Store is paradise of freedom.
But moving all the innovation in TV to the iPad won't fix the TV itself, and not everyone was buying the second screen promise. "What works best on television is television," said Lawrence Brickman, VP of smart TV app developer Accedo. "What's been left out of the multiscreen conversation is the first screen, and that will come full circle." But there was precious little in the way of first screen innovation on displays — save for Microsoft's Xbox SmartGlass, which moves the entire UI to apps on phones, tablets, and laptops. "Someone who uses our product should intuitively reach for their phone or their tablet because they have better control of their Xbox," said Microsoft's Mark Budash. Cisco VP of design Olivier Lacour saw the TV experience "being turned from something that is terrible to something simple, to something which syncs across all the devices."
"Apple is the best benchmark in the room, but it's not that good."
It's a line right out of Apple's playbook — a line that highlights the tremendous irony of the television industry, which has focused so much interface and content innovation on Apple's tablet while anxiously waiting to see if and when Apple will produce a television of its own. The entrenched players are confident that they can make the leap to a refreshed TV interface before that happens. "Apple is the best benchmark in the room, but it's not that good," said Lacour. "iTunes 11 is bizarre."
But if Apple can leverage the incredible amount of energy the TV industry has already invested in the iPad, it may not matter if anyone else can do it better — Apple's platform will hit scale across multiple screens before the industry even knows it's happening.
Sounds just like the iPad itself, come to think of it.