The second screen of the smartphone or tablet offers the potential to improve the traditional television experience but there are implications for regulation. A report published by Ofcom provides a comprehensive account of the emerging market in the United Kingdom. Yet with international players like Google and Facebook bigger than any broadcast platform, the second screen is already the first screen that many people use when watching television.

The Assessing the impact of the second screen report commissioned by the United Kingdom communications regulator provides an assessment of the impact of the second screen in terms of public policy.

Part of the problem lies in the definition of what is meant by ‘second screen’. Ofcom defines it as “a class of connected devices or applications that are designed to be complementary to TV watching or radio listening by presenting content that is contextual and or synchronised to what is showing on the primary screen whether that is live or on-demand.”

However, for many people the use of a smartphone or tablet while watching television is only loosely coupled to the television experience. They might use Google or YouTube to search for something or Facebook or Twitter to comment on it.

While broadcasters have dabbled with synchronous applications the level of adoption has been modest. The BBC Antiques Roadshow app was downloaded just 28,500 times, representing 0.1% of television homes in the country. X-Factor, one of the most popular shows on ITV, achieved 547,500 downloads, which is about 2% of television homes, or 5% of the programme audience.

By contrast, Facebook has seen nearly 60 million downloads in the United Kingdom, ahead of YouTube with 35 million, Twitter with 15 million or Google Plus with 12 million. Of course these services are also available on the web, making them universally ubiquitous.

This report is primarily concerned with those cases where there is some form of direct or indirect data link between the broadcast and the second screen.

Among the applications for this are enhanced remote controls and programme guides. These can provide a significantly better user experience than traditional electronic programme guides.

The report references 2.6 million downloads of the Sky+ app, which is more than a quarter of Sky television homes. That is some way ahead of Virgin TV Anywhere, with 269,000, or about 7% of Virgin TV households, and a long way ahead of the YouView app, with 27,000 downloads, although that represented 12% of YouView households at the time.

Independent programme guides have also done well, with TV Guide achieving 2.7 million downloads, and TV24 delivering 1.3 million. In comparison, the report says Zeebox had 0.2 million downloads.

The use of the second screen for search, discovery and control has consequences for the relative prominence of particular channels based on their logical channel number or position in the electronic programme guide, which has been established through a combination of priority, regulation and commercial negotiation.

Second screen applications have far more flexibility to present programme information in ways that may be more relevant to the user, including editorial or personal recommendations.

Second screen applications may have benefits in terms of accessibility but they are currently outside the scope of specific regulation in terms of requirements for subtitles or audio description, although they must still comply with disability discrimination legislation.

There are also new opportunities created by synchronisation of services to broadcast streams. This can be achieved using techniques such as audio fingerprinting. Such synchronised services fall outside existing broadcast regulation.

So far, this does not seem to present much of a problem. The report says there have been no complaints, noting: “While some types of consumer harm can be imagined, there is no evidence that there is yet anything untoward about the use of the second screen given its state of development”.

In terms of providing prominence to public service broadcasters, the report notes that second screens “will render regulation somewhat more difficult to specify and enforce than hitherto on first screens.”

The authors observe that second screen infrastructures, technologies and standards are largely closed and proprietary. “While there are certainly entry barriers as a result, the level of innovation has not noticeably suffered, nor is there great support for more open access to second screen technologies.”

With regard to those with disabilities, “second screen devices have the potential to offer more accessibility features but they are not currently required to do so under regulations which apply to the first screen.” The fragmentation of the market also means that it is harder to offer universal accessibility.

The report recommends addressing the “potential loophole” where a second screen application can offer synchronous, related material that may not be regulated as broadcast content. It says: “consideration should be given to the circumstances when second screen content would legitimately be seen as part of first screen content and needs to be regulated as such.”

Yet the obvious observation is that all these second screen devices are already very capable of delivering audiovisual media directly into the hands of users, largely outside the regulatory regime of broadcasting.

Rather than wondering whether it is possible to control these new screens in the same way as broadcasting, the more challenging question may be whether it remains relevant to regulate television in the same way it once was, given the changing environment in which it operates.

Assessing the impact of second screen by Technologia in conjunction with the DTG and i2 media research is available from the Ofcom web site.