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TV's double vision, when 1 screen isn't enough

Thursday - 5/3/2012, 12:42pm  ET

AP Television Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - As a kid, I dreamed of having a telephone that was plugged into my family's TV and would let me ring up whoever I was watching. With this special phone, I could reach my favorite TV stars, introduce myself and talk to them about their shows.

It would've been so great. But I always knew it was an impossible dream.

Flash forward a few decades. On a Thursday night last month, Kerry Washington, the star of such films as "Ray" and "The Last King of Scotland," was live-tweeting answers to questions tweeted from viewers as they watched the premiere of her new ABC series, "Scandal."

Washington was at her mother's New York apartment, where family and friends were gathered for a viewing party in her honor.

"But I hate watching myself," she says. "So while the show was on, I was buried in my laptop tweeting. It was fun."

Then, too excited about her new show to sleep, she logged back on to Twitter a couple of hours later to chat with "Scandal" viewers tuning into the West Coast feed.

The act of watching TV has no doubt gone through epic transformations.

Remember when TV shows were locked in place by broadcasters, cemented on each station's grid in take-it-or-leave-it formation? Well, maybe you don't. It's been a generation since the first affordable home VCRs let viewers store and time-shift their favorite programs, putting made-to-order scheduling in each viewer's hands.

Here's another one: Remember when you needed a TV to watch TV? It was only in recent years that TV content escaped the physical constraints of what we call a TV. You now can opt for watching "television" on a PC screen or even newfangled devices such as an iPad, iPhone or Kindle Fire.

And that's not all. Now, in the latest quantum leap, those alternative outlets are converging with the TV for a multi-screen experience.

A new book, "Social TV," speaks of "a rediscovery of TV as a NEW medium." According to authors Mike Proulx and Stacey Shepatin, "We now live in a world where television has symbiotically become one with the Web, social media and mobile."

No more can TV-watching be contained by the TV or any other gadget. A companion screen _ be it computer, tablet or smartphone _ has been brought into the act. Never again need TV be experienced as TV alone.

Nor need any member of the audience experience TV while being alone.

TV was always a solitary pastime. Maybe a few family members convened to watch together, but for the most part, TV funneled the world to viewers individually, each of whom knew that millions of others were seeing the same shows, but in similar isolation. Truly sharing the experience was impossible, even unthinkable.

Now, thanks to "second screens" and the social media they convey, the TV audience can talk among themselves. As they engage in the new pastime of virtual co-viewing, they can express their likes and dislikes in a massive, global back-and-forth.

What's more, they are heard, and often heeded, by the presenters of those programs.

Maybe it's as simple as a cable-news show that, bannering its hashtag, invites Twitter users to weigh in on the story being reported, with their tweets unscrolling on the TV screen.

Maybe it's as complex as teams of data miners curating what the Twitterati are saying about a TV show, from moment to moment as the show unfolds, for sharp-eyed analysis by network bosses and ad buyers.

And the tweets add up. At 10:35 p.m. Eastern time on a Sunday night last August, MTV's "Video Music Awards" sparked a record-breaking 8,868 tweets-per-second as Beyonce finished singing and rubbed her belly, signaling she was pregnant.

Now what would Karen Scott have made of that?

I'm talking about the heroine of a short-lived 1960s NBC sitcom. "Karen" centered on a "modern teenage girl" who "by the light of television" (according to the theme song, performed by the Beach Boys) "can even write a book report."

Today, of course, that report would be composed on a laptop or a tablet that emits its own light, while the multitasking Karen keeps her eye on her TV and tweets on her phone.

Maybe circa-2012 Karen would be following her favorite show on Twitter or Facebook.

Maybe she would log onto a specialty app for a show she likes, such as TBS' "Conan," whose Team Coco tablet app presents its own Twitter feed interspersed with other content unfurling in synch with the show as it airs.

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