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TV is no longer the first screen. It’s the second.

By on May 29, 2012

UPDATE: It turns out that Mark Sorrell, who talks about where television meets games a lot, made this point last year. I’ve just read his post on TV as the second screen. You should read it too.


I attend a lot of conferences, both in games and in the wider media. Whenever people in the television industry talk about games, they talk about the “second screen”. They have an inbuilt sense that whatever happens, however the media landscape changes, the television will hold its place as the “first screen” in our lives.

They are wrong. Television is already becoming the second screen. This process is only going to get worse.

What is the first screen?

Television started life as the first screen because it was the only screen. When I grew up, we had one television in the house, in the living room. For the first ten years of my life, it only had three channels on it. We didn’t have a television in our bedrooms, or in the kitchen.

(Not that we were an anti-television household. My mother worked for Thames Television in the children’s department. My brother and I both appeared on shows, and were regularly taxied in to fill out the audience on a television show called CBTV Channel 14.)

Our living room was arranged to have all the chairs and sofas laid out with a good view of the screen. We would watch the same shows with our parents because there was no other choice. That lack of choice enabled a TV show such as the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special in 1977 to achieve an audience figure of 21 million (or 28 million, depending on who you believe), a figure that has rarely been equalled in the UK.

What is the first screen now?

In 2012, the first screen may be something different. Most of us still have a large television in pride of place in the living room, although the invention of flat screens mean that is often much more discreet than it used to be, even if it is bigger. Television types assume that it is the first screen because it is the biggest.

Is that a fair assumption? Surely the first screen is the one that engages your attention the most. Increasingly, the first screen is the laptop, the mobile or the tablet – the screen that consumers are engaged with while they have television on in the background.

The television is still remarkable for certain things. It makes content that is best shared live and at scale more enjoyable: live sports, or event-television such as X-Factor or Dancing with the Stars. It can still make gaming much more of a spectacle than is possible on a 4” screen.

But it no longer occupies the position of first screen by default. Television executives who are believe that the biggest challenge is how to harness the second screen to protect the first are getting it all wrong. They need to be adapting to making content for the screen that engages the viewer most tightly, and builds an ongoing relationship with that viewer.

They say that acknowledgement is the first step to recovery. It’s time that TV people accepted that they are no longer the first screen by right. They have to earn it. Or they have to earn people’s attention on the first, small, personal screen before transferring the content to the big, group-friendly screen on the wall.

If they don’t make this shift, you can rest assured that some startup will.


(Thanks to Bill Thompson for inspiring this thought)

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: