11/04/2013 04:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Second Thoughts on Second Screens

There's something about technology and innovation that makes people a little nutty.

Show them a fancy gadget or tease them with what might be the next great social-media app and suddenly intelligent, thoughtful people are willing to believe crazy things. It's like the laws of economics have somehow been suspended. Or that television audiences will behave in new and exciting ways, and the sun might -- just might -- rise in the west.

Look at the phenomenon known as the "second screen." This is the belief that because viewers often have a tablet or phone nearby while watching TV, they must want to use that device (the second screen) to interact with the TV show in some new way.

Suppose you are talented enough and fortunate enough to be the producer of a prime-time, scripted show on a successful broadcast or cable network.

Recognizing your good fortune, you work like a fiend to produce the best show possible. You find the best writers you can; create rich, relatable characters; put together a cast with skill, chemistry and appeal; and hire the finest creative and technical crews available.

You do all this because, for your show to succeed, you need to win over audiences -- engage them, entertain them and maybe surprise them a little.

In other words, you need your audiences to be in that trance-like state known as "suspension of disbelief." As it happens, this is also the ideal condition for advertisers who want to deliver emotionally engaging messages to consumers.

But if your show fails to connect with viewers, they will grow bored. Their minds will wander, and they will start looking for something else to do.

Enter the second screen. Or more accurately, enter the belief that second-screen technology stimulates audiences to behave in new and exciting ways -- that grabbing their phone or tablet while the TV is on makes them do things they've never done before.

Researchers noticed. Suddenly, in-depth reports on second-screen behavior breathlessly concluded that people often do two things at once! That got everyone stirred up, even though the critical cause-and-effect part was missing.

We've been here before.

Back when I was at TiVo, we began to measure fast-forwarding through commercials. This spurred a general panic among networks and advertisers. The DVR was vilified as a demon device that caused ad skipping -- a brand-new audience behavior.

But this was absolutely false. All TiVo did was measure ad-skipping. If there had been a way to know how many people picked up the paper or went to the kitchen for a bag of chips during commercial breaks, we'd already have accepted that people skipped ads. But TiVo had graphs and charts showing how people fast-forwarded through ads. The media world could no longer pretend audiences were watching every commercial with rapt attention.

Second screens are the same. It's just a new way of measuring an old behavior.

A few years ago, if a show lost my attention I might pick up a magazine or change the channel. Today I'm more likely to grab a second screen -- my iPad or smartphone.

But to do what? Facebook? Email? Amazon? Sure. After all, when a show lets you down, there's always shopping. But launch a second-screen app with more information about the show I've just abandoned? That doesn't sound right, does it?

ABC has figured this out. As Janko Roettgers chronicled in his recent GigaOM posting, "ABC Executive: Second Screen Apps Can Be a Distraction," ABC has realized that the more engaging second-screen activities are, the more they take viewers away from the real cash cow -- the TV show itself.

Of course, there are exceptions. Downloading a recipe from a cooking show is a nice convenience, and it's far easier to vote for your favorite American Idol from your iPad than to call a toll-free number. But that's not new behavior. It's a slight variation on established behavior.

Yet companies have spent millions on so-called second-screen experiences in hopes that audiences will suddenly behave in new, counterintuitive ways. Want to go behind the scenes of that show you're ignoring? Care to learn more about the advertiser you've dismissed? Then boy, do we have an app for you!

Despite all the froth, aren't second screens just the modern equivalent of a newspaper on the coffee table? Yes, people use them, but to take their minds off a disappointing TV experience, not wallow in it.

No question, technology has an impact on TV viewing. Successful technologies give us greater control over when and how we watch TV. They enhance our TV experience by letting us suspend disbelief using smart TVs or tablets on airplanes. They don't make us behave in strange new ways.

So when you hear fantastic things like, "People want 3D TV -- they don't mind wearing glasses," and, "Second screens are changing the way people watch TV!" it's okay to take a deep breath, make sure the sun still rises in the east, and call foul.