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'Second screen' apps turn digital distractions into TV companions

Disney and Yahoo design 'second screen' apps for phones and tablets that help viewers stay invested in a TV show or movie – even when they're ignoring that TV show or movie.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2012

Disney pushes 'second screen' apps for multitaskers.

Marcellus Hall

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When KC Orcutt watches television, she rarely just watches the television. Her eyes bob between the screen and her phone.

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The writer from Albany, N.Y., uses her smart phone to check e-mail, read websites, and comment on movies while she watches them.

"I judge a movie by how often I check my phone," she says.

According to studio executives and advertisers, Ms. Orcutt is part of the problem.

Forty percent of tablet and smart phone owners in the United States use those devices daily while watching TV, according to the research firm Nielsen in New York. More than 85 percent pull double duty at least once a month. And these distracted moments aren't confined to commercial breaks. Nielsen found that multitaskers are just as likely to use their phones or tablets during the program as during the ads.

Rather than compete with these devices, Disney is experimenting with ways to occupy both screens concurrently. It has developed "second screen" applications, software designed to complement television. Part director commentary, part online forum, these apps try to keep people like Orcutt invested in a TV show or movie – even when they're ignoring that TV show or movie.

"People can now interact with features about the making of the movie in ways that have not been possible on DVD or even Blu-ray," says Ole Lutjens, chief creative officer at MX, which creates second-screen apps, in San Francisco. "You can interact with it. You can take it with you. Share it with friends."

MX designed companion software for the Blu-ray releases of Disney's "The Lion King," "Tron: Legacy," and "Real Steel." As viewers watch the movie, their iPads or laptops show bonus features specifically timed to the movie – similar to VH1's "Pop Up Video" but on a separate screen instead of obscuring the primary one.

These Disney apps run through concept art, behind-the-scenes video, 3-D models, and games for kids. If the add-ons pull people in, a single tap will pause the movie or resync the app to match the video.

Disney's second-screen apps are free of charge but require a code that proves viewers purchased the corresponding Blu-ray disc. Once unlocked, the app will work whether or not people watch the movie.

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