HBO’s Game of Thrones made history in its final season when fans tweeted about the third episode in record numbers.
With nearly 8 million tweets, the milestone highlighted a shift in how people watch TV. According to a 2019 Nielsen Total Audience Report, 45% of people very often or always use a digital device while watching TV.
Producers capitalize on this trend by offering viewers mobile content to interact with.
“There was a show on Sci-Fi called Defiance that aired in 2013, and that’s the one I really started to notice because they started signaling in the programming that now it’s time to sync up your device,” Associate Professor Rick Stevens says. He and other media scholars call the trend “second screening.”
Apps can cue fans to examine an object in the show’s background, read a translation of an alien language, or learn more about key characters.
“When you talk about a program on the Sci-Fi network or somewhere like that, their audience is smaller than the general audience,” Stevens says, “so what they want are deeply committed fans, and this is one way to get to that.”
Long before the industry caught on to second screening, viewers were interacting in chat rooms and sharing fanfiction.
“The history of television has been one, throughout the 20th century, where producers think that they control a text,” Stevens says, “and then are frequently surprised by the level of engagement of certain fan audiences.”
This relationship can cut both ways, Stevens says. For instance, after the final season of Game of Thrones, fans who were dissatisfied with the outcome took to the internet demanding a rewrite.
“Having devoted fans is great until it’s not,” he says. “Devoted fans also have that expectation, and they have privilege that they feel goes with it, so it is a relationship that has to be constantly negotiated.”