LAS VEGAS -- Television makers, networks and movie studios are embracing the tablet and developing original content and software to drive audience interaction and new advertising revenue after initially dismissing mobile devices as a distraction.
At the heart of this volte-face is a growing recognition of how TV viewing, which has stayed much the same over the past decade, is evolving amid the growth of hand-held devices like the tablet. More and more, viewers are fiddling with tablets or smartphones while watching television or tuning out during commercials.
The trend is prompting developers, manufacturers and broadcasters to create tablet applications to hold viewers' attention, network executives and developers say.
"When the iPad came out, we decided to give it a shot," said Lisa Hsia, executive vice president of the Bravo Digital Network, one of the first networks to devise a second-screen app it called Bravo Now. "For almost a year, no one came out with an app. Now, it's a cost of entry for any TV network.
"It's not only the fans who crave it, it's also another potential form of revenue as interactivity brings in a whole new engagement and revenue."
About 40 percent of Americans use tablets or smartphones while watching TV at least once a day. Twice as many do so at least once a month, according to a Nielsen report.
Pew Research showed that 11 percent of viewers who followed the first live telecast debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama simultaneously followed coverage of the event on computers or mobile devices.
Enter so-called "second screen" apps, software applications on tablets or phones that synchronize onscreen action with supplementary information such as behind-the-scenes footage, costume design information, location details and games.
They feed viewers information such as cast and crew comments. They also invite viewer input, such as voting for favorite scenes or characters.
Fans of "The Walking Dead", one of the highest rated shows on cable, can take snap polls on their tablets during new episodes, vote on everything from their favorite actor to best zombie kill, and watch exclusive footage on a tablet or smartphone while the program unfolds onscreen.
Bravo's "Last Chance Kitchen", a Web-only program introduced during the ninth season of "Top Chef" last year, had eight million video views, the most of any network.
On the hardware end, major manufacturers are gearing up to introduce second-screen features in a big way. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, the world's largest TV manufacturers touted interactivity with mobile devices.
Sharp showed off a "SmartCentral" app for its line of Aquos TVs that allows a tablet to function as a remote while also allowing Web browsing. Users can also browse and select movies from their tablets, and transfer photos and videos to their TVs.
Panasonic demonstrated how viewers can share content from TVs with their Google (GOOG) Inc Android devices. And Samsung Electronics Ltd Co said a major effort in 2013 would be to combine mobile phones with TVs.
Engagement and revenue
Even cable provider Dish Network entered the fray by announcing at CES that it will offer subscribers an iPad app that includes not just its traditional programming grid, but also remote control capabilities and social search features.
"For us it's a way to get consumers engaged in movies," David Bishop, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, said. "Some may say this is a distraction but it could drive you to see films that you may otherwise not watch."
"It becomes part of the whole movie-watching experience."
While Sony uses a third party to develop the apps, it has an internal group that is focused just on the digital product.
Ron Gelick, senior vice president of CBS Interactive, said the network is looking to step up the digital experience every year, and producers are now encouraged to think about digital content right from the drawing board.
The network's effort at making last year's Grammy awards more "social" - via an app that streamed exclusive performance and interview videos with a wide variety of artists, along with the ability to directly link to social sites - resulted in 13 million mentions on social networks and feeds, he said.
"It helps build passion for the show," he told reporters.
Bravos's Hsia said it was difficult to find developers when the network wanted to build an app in 2010. Now, there's a host of developers who specialize in developing streaming content and other mobile apps specifically for television, she said.
One of the early pioneers of companion apps was Shazam, which started out as an easy way to identify music but now can be used also to access trivia on TV programs, celebrity gossip on and tweets from the stars onscreen and - naturally - music featured on the broadcast.
Televisions are also beginning to sport more powerful processors, smoothening interaction with devices, said Chris Jantz-Sell, vice president of product at Flingo.
The San Francisco startup recently announced its "Samba" platform, which synchronizes with live TV and, as the viewer flips channels, recommends related videos or TV programs.
Zeebox - which pools content from broadcasters - said its TV app had been downloaded one million times over the past three months. The app, introduced in the United States last September, has about half a million unique users per month on average.
"The interest is huge," said Guy Finley, executive director of the Media and Entertainment Services Alliance, which organized a conference on second screens at CES.
"I originally planed on one room and about 200 people. It quickly went to two rooms with 200 people each."