Network AMC has created an interactive mobile app called Story Sync for its "Walking Dead" series.

Story highlights

Using another digital device while watching TV is fairly common

TV networks are experimenting with ways to reach their audiences on the second screen

They have to keep in mind that less is more and be wary of distractions

The possibilities of second screen are still developing

CNN  — 

The next time you pause to watch TV – anything from the morning news to a prime time drama – try an experiment: Watch the show in its entirety without interacting with another device.

That means no checking email, no texting, Tweeting, pinning, visiting Facebook or hunting for spoilers. No unlocking your smartphone every 60 seconds or casually flipping through content on your tablet or e-reader. (And if you’re one of the reported 2.65 million whom The Convergence Consulting Group found ditched TV subscriptions for the Web between 2008 and 2011, resist the urge to open a new tab in your browser, just to play along.)

For many of us, that’s far less intuitive than it sounds. Our mobile devices have not only given us a new option when deciding where to watch a favorite show, but they’ve also changed the way we experience TV. Whereas we simply watched one screen in the era of “The Cosby Show,” some of us would be at a loss if we couldn’t have our laptops out while also viewing “Modern Family.”

Having that “second screen” – the common phrase for a mobile device used while watching a TV program – can make us feel like we’re being more productive, but it can also broaden our viewing experience. We can figure out what song that “X Factor” contestant performed by searching for lyrics, read a live blog that breaks down issues during a political debate and be vastly entertained by the communal digital snark that erupts while watching reality TV.

Nielsen reports that during the second quarter of 2012, 86% of tablet owners and 84% of smartphone owners in the United States said they used their second screen of choice while simultaneously watching TV at least once during a 30-day period.

But for 41% of tablet owners and 39% of those owning smartphones, that multitasking is more like once a day, at a minimum.

Our attachment to our mobile devices during TV time isn’t surprising, least of all to the digital strategists at the networks creating what we view.

Some of them, too, have noticed their own propensity to have another device close by while watching TV, which caused them to notice something else: An opportunity.

Major broadcast networks and cable programmers alike are tinkering around with what they can offer a second screen captivated audience, as are companies like GetGlue, Miso, and Yahoo’s! IntoNow.

While those latter services are focusing on creating opportunities for engagement across a wide spectrum of shows to serve TV’s fan bases, networks are zeroing in on how they can take advantage of their insider knowledge to keep users interacting with them on those inescapable second screens. (Rather than using them for, say, emailing, which Nielsen in a 2011 report found 61% of tablet owners were doing while also watching a TV show.)

That’s why TV fans are frequently coming across applications pegged as “second screen experiences” – downloadable environments where viewers can often interact with and learn more about what they’re watching on TV, in some cases syncing the application with the TV show.

The second screen seems to work particularly well with live events, as well as reality programming, sporting events and news. For example, Albert Cheng, chief product officer and the executive vice president of digital media for Disney/ABC Television, said ABC saw success with their Backstage Pass app for the Oscars, which offered “all-access” to viewers above and beyond what they could see at any one time on their television screens.

So if you were a fan of 2012’s best supporting actress winner Octavia Spencer, Cheng said, “You followed her nomination, you followed her through the red carpet, and when you saw her on TV get her Oscar… with your iPad or computer, you could see her walk down the winners walk and [be interviewed.] … As a fan, you felt as though you were with her all the way through.”

But while the Oscars or the recent Republican debates – for which ABC News worked with IntoNow to create polls that allowed viewers to interact with the verbal sparring – provide a fairly natural fit, scripted programming has been trickier. Even before you break down the difference between creating a second screen experience around a half-hour comedy versus a detailed hour-long drama, there’s the delicate balance between providing content that’s engaging and worthwhile to the viewer while not annoying them or pulling them out of the storyline.

Yet with so many viewers intent on using a second screen while watching TV, what’s a showrunner to do? Networks are in the midst of experimenting, but a few refrains are starting to emerge: Know your audience, less really is more, and above all else, keep the content king.

“People are getting better and better all the time at multitasking, that’s a truism. But that said, I think people want to lose themselves in television,” said David Wertheimer, Fox’s president of digital media. “Television and feature films are fundamentally about suspension of disbelief and getting into the moment, and you do have to be careful not to take them out of that.”

While Fox has created second screen apps around properties like “So You Think You Can Dance,” with plenty of creative input this season from executive producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe, the process varies from show to show.

Generally, Wertheimer said, the digital side will get input from a writer to construct an app, with its scripted shows focusing on more “lightweight material.” The network’s freshman hit “New Girl,” for example, has a companion app that includes polls about relationships, a breakdown of the curious sayings of Max Greenfield’s breakout character Schmidt, and the option to audio sync the app with the show as you’re watching it, of course.

“You want to give people sharable moments. You want to give people little bits that help them engage deeper with the show and the ability to drill deeper on their own time when the show’s not on. It’s not really about inundating them with stuff. That’s one of the mistakes that many, many people have made in the second screen world,” Wertheimer said.

ABC learned its own valuable lessons on the integration of scripted programming and the second screen experience with “Grey’s Anatomy,” one of the network’s biggest series. After taking a swing with a second screen app for 2010’s swiftly canceled “My Generation,” the network wanted to test the technology with the more stable “Grey’s.”

Creator Shonda Rhimes was “very, very gung-ho” about the app, and the network had two writers on her staff write the concept. “She was very excited about the technology and her fans were [too],” Cheng said.

But the pesky problem of a distracted audience was a deal breaker. While watching the show, “when there was [related] content there was an audio cue, [so] you look down, you read the content module,” Cheng explained. But that meant “I’d answer the question, and I’d look up, and I’d miss a key scene. With that specific application, viewers expressed that it actually distracted them from the storyline and narrative. For a showrunner, then, it became very apparent that it’s not helping as much as we’d like it to. The hardest thing for me was to actually sit down with Shonda and say, ‘Hey this is great, but guess what, your viewers told us it was kind of distracting and they couldn’t follow the scenes.”

Without a clamoring demand for additional content to supplement scripted programming, Cheng concluded that energy is better spent on continuing to create social buzz.

“I think it’s great for everyone to be experimenting now, but our opinion at this point here, after having done the experiments, we want our showrunners focused on creating great shows,” Cheng said.

At AMC, home to critic- and fan-adored shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad,” they’re continuing to eye ways to do both with their Story Sync second screen experience.

The idea was spawned after AMC noticed the high level of interaction on the live “watch-and-chats” on the cable network’s website. Fans would come together and talk about what they were watching as moderators supplied additional content.

The network also picked up on how frequently their programming would ping around social media sites. Clearly, said Mac McKean, senior vice president of AMC Digital, they have audiences who want to “engage with each other and with the show while it’s on.” And from there Story Sync, which rolled out earlier this year with “The Walking Dead,” was born.

The program was built “very specifically to tap into the emotional and dramatic moments of the shows that are most evocative, or that people are most responding to,” McKean said. “We collaborate closely with the writers’ rooms and production teams of the shows for every episode. In fact, the ‘Breaking Bad’ one, we had someone from the writers’ room actually scripting it.”

From the outset, McKean said, they leaned toward restraint when creating content.

“We’re pretty judicious in what we choose to provide content around … We pick the moments where that content is going to appear and we literally watch the show like, five times, and we’re constantly adjusting it,” McKean said. “We’re not asking you to click a button in the middle of someone getting shot, or a complex conversation that you should be paying attention to. … The second screen is connecting some dots that people might not connect for themselves. Our goal is to enhance the experience without making it a new story.”

While they’re getting positive feedback from fans, McKean said they’re not automatically going to construct a Story Sync approach for every show, unless they’re confident it’ll enhance the viewing experience without detracting from it.

Thinking on how the second screen could continue to develop, McKean said he doesn’t have “any doubts that we’re tapping into something that’s going to mean more in the future. What shape it will have at that time is anybody’s guess.”

The variety of approaches seems open-ended at this point, as networks like NBC, which recently rolled out an e-book for supernatural series “Grimm,” CBS, with its social TV platform CBS Connect, and MTV with its WatchWith app, continue to test theories on the second screen.

But as these digital execs will note, the second screen is just another player in the increasingly robust digital playbook now demanded of TV shows.

“The second screen discussion we’ve been having is just one piece of a strategy that’s all about giving our audiences an opportunity to talk about the shows and share thoughts with the showrunners and the talent,” Fox’s Wertheimer said. “To us, that’s what television in the 21st century is all about.”