Viewing practices in the age of second screens

Watching television has always been a social activity. Recently, audience practices have been changing with the introduction of new forms of media technologies such as smartphones and tablet computers. Audience members have the option to log onto the Internet anytime and anyplace – even while watching television. The process of television watching thus is no longer restricted to a single screen, but happens in a multi-screen environment. Audience members make use of a second or even third screen, switching their attention between their smartphones and the television set. Nevertheless, attention must not necessarily be divided, as audience members can choose to direct their activity to both screens. Making use of social network sites such as Twitter, users are able to engage in communicative practices, such as commenting on a certain show through the second screen while at the same time watching the show on the first screen. These forms of communication are quite similar to the above-mentioned established forms of audience practices. Nevertheless, they are novel, as audience members gain the option to get into contact with other formerly unknown audience members. By communicating through social network sites via the second screen, audience members become visible to each other, allowing for vivid forms of communication about television shows.

Market-driven research suggests that these new styles of watching television are all-encompassing – everybody uses a second screen to engage in a communication-rich environment. This highly ambitious assumption requires further scrutiny, as media audiences are by no means undifferentiated masses, who employ new modes of communication as soon as they gain access to them. Members of different media generations and cultural backgrounds adopt new technologies in a cautious or curious manner. They employ different styles of watching television and present a variety of modes for selecting television shows, engaging with content or socializing with other audience members. These styles of watching television in different media generations using the second screen are fairly unknown and thus constitute a gap in research, which we aimed to close in our research project “Mediatized Media Reception”, running from October 2014 to December 2016.

Researching the use of second screens

Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft as part of the larger research network Mediatized Worlds, we focused on changes of audience practices regarding television viewing, brought forth by changes to the media which are reified by the second screen. We analysed the practices of commenting on television content as well as on the processes of co-orientation, i.e. social forms of recommendation and programme selection of individual audience members. In accordance with Couldry (2012) we propose that these practices have become stable forms of audience behaviour, which nevertheless renew themselves whenever media changes occur, leading to different styles of audience practices. These forms can be seen as the groundwork for the analysis of “media generations”, which differ in styles, but not in the forms of media practices.

Our research took a closer look at audience practices during the introduction of novel forms of television viewing in Germany. Our research design was exploratory and based in Grounded Theory, as we put the spotlight on changes in audience practice in the context of television viewing as an everyday activity. We chose guided interviews as our method for data acquisition, in order to grasp the circumstances, contextualisation and actual practices of television viewing in old (that is traditional, one screen) and new settings. Empirically, we conducted a total of n=40 explorative qualitative interviews with members of two media generations. Older participants (age 50 and older), as well as so-called digital natives (ages 19 to 29) were asked to recall and describe their practices of communication in the context of their peers, such as family, co-workers, as well as non-peers, such as commenters on the Internet. We conducted a computer-aided analysis of the interviews, forming categories of audience practices regarding the second screen, which occurred inter- and intragenerationally. The final analysis is underway. However, we are able to give a summary of the primary insights on the use of second screens and the accompanying processes of communication.

Quite surprisingly, all our participants in both media generations reported that they use a second screen during television viewing. Members of any age group mainly used smartphones or tablet computers in order to access the Internet during a television show they were about to watch. Their use of the second screen is thus intentional and not merely casual.

Finding 1: Generation 50+ and their use of second screens

Turning to the older members of our sample, we asked them about the practices, which they conduct through the second screen, while watching television. As far as processes of communication are concerned, most of our older participants refrained from actively using social networking sites, especially Twitter, to engage in conversation with other audience members while watching television. Our participants gave several reasons for their behaviour. First of all, members of the generation 50+, reported that they simply did not feel the urge to comment publicly on the shows. This answer was usually grounded in their media socialisation. At times when they grew up, personal television sets were a rare sight in Germany. In the 1950s and 1960s, owning a television set was quite expensive and therefore an exclusive item. Usually, neighbours gathered around privately owned television sets in order to watch a show collectively. They were used to keeping quiet during the course of the show. Some members of our sample reported that if they owned a television set in the family, their parents usually restricted the access and they were told to keep quiet as well. Thus, older audience members have learned to watch TV in silence or without any further commenting and transferred this learned behaviour to present forms of watching television.

This silence of our older participants on the second screen had another, more cultural, reason. Entertainment television in Germany is regarded as a form of guilty pleasure – all our viewers enjoyed watching popular crime dramas or Reality TV shows, although they perceived them as a form of low culture at the same time. Citing the need for recreation as their main motive for turning to crime dramas (and Schadenfreude as the main motive for turning to Reality TV), members of the older generation told us that watching these shows had to be done in private. As these shows are not regarded as high culture, public admittance to watching them through social network sites could be seen as a loss of face.

Some older participants reported that they abstain from using social networks through second screens as they are worried about data protection and unforeseeable consequences of these forms of communication. Once more, cultural and political reasons are guiding this behaviour, as data protection is a heavily discussed issue in German politics, leading to conservative and protective policies, which emphasise user privacy. Our older participants generally follow this line of argument.

Nevertheless, older users of a second screen frequently used it mainly for gathering information on shows. They used websites such as Wikipedia or IMDB in order to retrieve information on actors and filming locations. Some of the older participants used the second screen to perform a quick cross-check on information presented in the show, for example on quiz shows.

Finding 2: Digital natives and the second screen

Digital natives in our sample reported that they usually refrain from using Twitter, as its ‘look and feel’ did not attract them. The social network relies on text-based messaging, makes heavy use of commentary and meta-commentary through hashtags and employs a sarcastic mode of communication, which needs to be decoded actively. Thus, younger audiences in our sample frequently lost interest in using Twitter, turning to apps such as Snapchat or Whatsapp instead, as they allow a more casual way of communication, which focuses on the actual situation of the users. They refrain from using Twitter both actively and passively. Furthermore, they do not follow the older generation’s behaviour of information seeking while watching television and did not turn to websites such as Wikipedia during the course of shows.

Finding 3: Cross-generational use of the second screen

Nevertheless, when leaving the Twitter-based public sphere and taking a closer look at mediated private conversations about television, we found vivid and engaging conversations between family members and friends in both the older generation as well as among digital natives. Watching television is a lively activity, especially in a family setting where audience members regularly comment on shows. Nevertheless, many of our participants made use of the second screen in order to reach out to absent friends and family members, mainly by using channels for private conversations, such as WhatsApp or other messenger apps. An older woman told us that she and her husband frequently sent text messages to their son, recommending crime dramas. The digital natives in our sample reported that they use group conversations in messenger apps while watching Reality TV-shows, such as casting shows. Thus, members of all media generations in our sample make use of the second screen in order to communicate with family and friends. Instead of choosing to communicate with a group of random strangers via Twitter, our participants preferred to engage in communication with well-known individuals. We can assume two reasons for this behaviour. On the one hand, the second screen is used to emulate the ‘normal’ setting of television watching, i.e. a group of friends and family members in front of a television set. The second screen serves as a digital extension of the couch in front of the TV, drawing in absent individual users. On the other hand, as the communication is not directed at unknown audience members, our participants could ‘keep their face’ and do not feel the need to justify watching Reality TV, as they are in the (virtual) presence of like-minded individuals.

A second screen for talking about television

Our findings show that watching television is a highly social activity as it employs different forms of communication in the age of second screens. These forms are different with regard to media generations – older audience members make use of second screens in order to communicate with friends and family members, making frequent use of messenger apps for private conversations. Furthermore, they use the second screen to gather information. Digital natives on the other hand refrain from this kind of behaviour but turn to the second screen in order to engage in private communication with friends and family members as well. The use of Twitter for publicly commenting on television shows and engaging in conversation with strangers, which are nevertheless part of the same audience, happens only scarcely. Thus, the use of second screens is by no means all-encompassing, yet brings forth new public forms of communication about television. As such, it can be regarded as a tool for private conversations amongst friends and family members.


Works Cited

Couldry, N. (2012). Media, Society, World. Social Theory and Digital Media Practice. Oxford: Polity.




Dr. Martin R. Herbers works at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Other than getting a great view over Lake Constance, he spends a lot of time watching television, especially comedy. His research interests are in the fields of political entertainment media and their contribution to the public sphere. You can follow him on Twitter.