Will the second screen become the first screen?

Josh Wein

Sit down to watch some TV, and the chances are pretty good you'll also be holding a smartphone or tablet. 

There's also a much lower, but growing chance that touch-screen device will be the only screen in front of you. According to a recent survey, one in 10 smartphone owners use the device to watch TV shows through apps such as Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Hulu Plus.

This situation has spawned a host of companies looking to exploit the inherent user-interface advantages of a touch screen over a traditional remote control and bring some order to video consumption on these devices. Often referred to as second-screen or social TV apps, the software these companies make is aimed at helping viewers find what to watch and in some cases encouraging them to interact with that programming after they find it.

One thing these apps don't do is let users watch full-length shows directly within the app itself. Guide apps like Dijit's NextGuide and companion apps like Zeebox or ConnecTV can point viewers to live linear TV or even launch another app on the same device to play video. Some apps offer clips of shows or supplemental exclusive content made specifically for that platform. But they don't offer the shows themselves.

"That's what all of us second-screen and guide guys really want," Ravi Damani, CEO of Yo.TV, which makes guide apps, told me. "For the content producers and channels, that's exactly what they don't want." For now, traditional linear TV and online video providers do not want their content embedded within these guide apps, Damani said. "They want control over the consumer experience."

They have it for now.

"In a matter of years there will be no such thing as a first screen or second screen. There will be a place where you find things to watch and a place where you display it," Anthony Rose, CTO and co-founder of Zeebox, told me in June. "Sometimes, they're the same place, but more often your choice will be made on the device with a touch screen and the playback will be on the nearest biggest screen," he said.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) may have just pushed the industry a step closer to that future this summer with the release of its Chromecast. The device does a pretty good job of turning a tablet or smartphone into the place where people find what to watch on TV--as long as they're watching YouTube or Netflix. But even then, when a viewer wants to switch between those two services, he or she must fire up a new app to access that programming.

Part of the promise of the guide apps is their ability to bring all that online programming together in one place. For now, some of these companies are comfortable sending users into different apps when they've made a decision on what to watch. "Sure, it would be great not to have to launch the Netflix app, but it's also not that big of a deal," Jeremy Toeman, Dijit's CEO, told me.

Getting those kinds of rights is a complicated and expensive process. And while the sector has attracted a significant amount of investment over the past few years--including from Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), which reportedly just acquired Matcha.tv for a song--they lack the kind of financial resources to take on a serious content-acquisition strategy. --Josh | +Josh Wein | @JoshWein