The Four Screens

Today, video is viewed on smart phones, tablets, personal computers, and televisions. What’s watched and audience expectations for content vary by device and platform. Developing effective video appeals requires being aware of what and how audiences watch what’s on the four screens.

Once upon a time, the only way most people experienced video programming was by watching a television set tuned to an electromagnetic signal broadcast over the air.

TV-viewing in the mid 20th century was something done mostly at home, often as family activity, or communally an institutional setting. Viewers had to conform themselves to a broadcaster’s schedule, and be content with offerings from three national networks and their local affiliates. The family TV become the electronic hearth of many American households.

By the start of 21st Century circumstances had changed radically and video was being consumed on devices that might have been considered science fiction in the 1950s -- smart phones, tablets, and laptop and desktop computers – and digital technology has transformed TVs and the video signal as well. Families still come together in front of the TV, but are as likely be in their own rooms watch their preferred programming.

The new universe of video consumption poses a range of strategic opportunities, challenges, and dilemmas for producers. Thinking through how to effectively and efficiently get a message to the right audience at the right time requires an understanding of the choices posed by new devices and platforms, and the creative conventions associated with each.

Devices and Platforms

With a caution that much of the usage data noted below is derived from surveys, here’s a broad overview of what’s on the four screens and how and in what circumstances people watch them.

Smart-phones. Connected to cellphone networks and carried in pockets and purses, smart phones are mobile and they are the focus of audiences on the move. They are used to stay connected to a user’s social network and workplace (according to one study, phones get checked up to 150 times a day by 18 to 34 year-olds). They are also often used to provide a distraction from the tedium of going from one place to another; waiting on the train, plane, bus, or mom and dad. What’s being watched may be interrupted by something happening in the real world, or by a call, text or an pap-spawned notification. So, the span of attention paid to content on a smart-phone may be brief.

Not surprisingly, the content watched on phones is very often short-form, videos on platforms like Facebook, Vine, and Instagram. Running times for the most viewed content vary greatly by platform, ranging from an average of a minute and a half for Facebook videos, to 30 seconds on Instagram [1], to just a few seconds on Vine (Vine videos loop, so length is not necessarily a measure of time spent watching). According to data from FreeWheel, a leading video marketplace advisory firm, 63% of ads seen on smart phones are served over short-form content [2].

eMarketer reports that “most digital video ads viewed on smart phones and desktop or laptop PCs are served against short-form video content [defined as video running under 20 minutes], suggesting that digital viewers are mostly accessing shorter, more snackable content on these devices.”

Because a smart-phone is often a viewer’s prime connection with social media, they are the device on which recommendations and notices about watchable content are received and shared. Digitalsmiths reports that TV show and movie previews were the second most watched content on smart phones in Q3 2015.

When smart phones are used to watch long-form content, movies are the most popular.

Tablets. Mobile, but larger and heavier than smart phones, and sometimes connected to cellphone networks but mostly Wi-fi enabled, tablets are used when there is time and space to pay attention to a task [3].

Compared with smart phones, tablets’ larger screens make watching long form-videos more comfortable. Indeed, tablets provide a way to curl up with a good movie like curling up with a good book. The close use of tablets establishes an intimate connection with what’s being watched.

According to eMarketer, digital video ads on tablets were more likely to support content longer than 20 minutes, suggesting a preference long-form content by tablet viewers.

Digitalsmiths reports that about 40% of tablet owners watch video on the device. Over 90% of this audience watches video on a weekly basis. The remaining 60% watch video on tablets for 2 hours or less. Movies are the content most watched on tablets, followed by re-runs of TV shows, movie and TV previews, and news.

Personal Computers. PCs are desktops or laptops. Desktops are fixed boxes on a desk, or on the floor near a desk in spaces set aside for computer use. Laptops are sometimes used in place of desktops where office space is at premium.

Laptops are mobile, but not as mobile as smart phones and tablets. Observe the coming and going in a public waiting space for any length of time, and it’s not hard to see a preference for smart phones or tablets over laptops.

When YouTube was founded in 2005, PCs were nearly the only device one could watch digital video on. No more. PCs have declined in popularity as a way to watch video as sales of PCs have declined. As of Q1 2016 sales of personal computers had fallen for six-straight quarters with overall PC sales at their lowest ebb since 2007.

By the end of 2015, ads served over video content presented on PCs were just 40% of all ads by device, first time the figure had fallen below 50%, according to Freewheel. Never again, Freewheel reported, “will the browser be the first stop for digital video content.”

FreeWheel’s Q4 2105 Video Monetization Report observes that the majority of monetization of video content now comes from “outside of desktop and laptop environments, representing 60% of video ad views, with over-the-top (OTT) devices and smart phones leading that advancement.

The video content that is watched on PCs is a roughly even mix between long, medium, and short forms, according to Freewheel [4].

The Big Screen Television. Most households in the US own a television set with a screen size of 40 inches or over with the trend being toward screens 50 to 60 inches. Time spent in front of TVs is generally dedicated, immersive, viewing time in a portion of the home set aside for watching television.

Content viewed on the family TV is most likely to be watched by more than one person at the same time and to be subject of discussion and comment while being viewed. That discussion can be in the room among the people watching, but also among viewers’ social networks via social media.

In Q1 2015 50% of the US television audience watched between 2 and 5 hours of video a day on television sets. 33% watched live (not recorded) content for 2 to 5 hours a day.

A growing number of televisions are so-called “smart TVs”, defined by their capacity to connect to a household’s data network and stream video content from video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, and to perform some computer-like tasks such as web browsing.

Smart TV capacities can be added to many modern digital televisions by connecting them to devices like network-enable DVD players, various game consoles, and streaming devices like Apples’s AppleTV, Google’s Chromecast, or one of Roku’s streaming sticks.

In the main, people like to watch TV on their televisions: full episodes of programs representing traditional TV genres. Such TV content arrives as live via broadcast or cable, on demand through a cable company controlled set top box (STB-VOD), or over the internet via video streaming device “over-the-top” (OTT), that is, outside the control of a cable system operator. STB-VOD accounted for 10% of ad views share by device in Q4 2015. OTT devices account for 22% in the same period, a 76% increase over Q4 2014.

AppleTV devices accounted for 44% of the ad view share for OTT devices, and Roku devices accounted for 34%. Both present video via branded content provider channels.

Horses for Courses

The many ways people now consume video create new strategic communication opportunities because there are more ways to reach more audiences than ever before with information of immediate relevance and interest.

The challenge that comes with the new opportunities is that producing effective content for any of the four screens requires careful consideration of the social contexts in which each is used, the platform that defines the form of video presented, and the various audiences attracted by different genres and styles of content.

The fact videos on Facebook and Instagram play first without audio has implications for what the first frames of videos intended for those platforms must communicate. The fact that Vine videos run for six seconds and then loop continuously until dismissed establishes certain creative and messaging constraints. Longer form OTT content allows more careful explication than any of the social media forms.

Some organizations will have to consider whether their messages can be effectively conveyed through certain channels. While they may not want to be, as Economist editor Zanny Milton Beddoes recently put it, “the grandpa at the disco”, they also have to be mindful of how their content will appear and what it will mean in the contexts different video platforms establish.

When, for example, potential viewers search for your content on YouTube they will find it, along with and just a click away, content from competitors and opponents. The comparison that YouTube search results invite can erode your intended message or brand experience. Providing content through a channel that allows a focused, controlled presentation, such as a dedicated app for smart phones or OTT devices, might be a better approach for some communications.


1. In March 2016, Instagram announced that it was increasing its allowed length of video uploads to 60 seconds.

2. If Apple has its way, tablets will replace laptops for many if not most traditional PC tasks. At an Apple event announcing a new range of iPads including the iPad Pro, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the iPad was the “perfect expression of the future of computing.” Apple’s Phil Schiller opined that the iPad Pro was “the ultimate replacement for all those old PCs in the world.

3. Data on what kind of video is being watched on what kind device is derived statistics on the advertising served by device and content type at the time the ad is served.

4. FreeWheel defines long-form as any content with a running time over 20 minutes, mid-form as content lasting 2 to 20 minutes, and short form as content under 10 minutes.


Brightcove. 2016. Five Smart Tactics for OTT Success.

Digitalsmiths. 2015. Q3 2015 Video Trends Report.

eMarketer. 2015. Most Smartphone, Desktop Video Ad Views Support Short-Form Content.

FreeWheel. 2015. Video Monetization Report Q4 2015.

Hartung, Adam. 2016. “Are PCs Irrelevant? PC Sales In Q1 Drop More Than 10% -- Are You Surprised? Do You Care?” Forbes.

Jarobe, Greg. 2015. “Video Advertisers,: Your Target Audience is Watch and Engaging Via Mobile”

Khalaf, Simon. 2015. The Cable Industry Faces the Perfect Storm: Apps, App Stores, and Apple.

Sweney, Mark. 2016. “Economist Editor: ‘We don’t want to be the grandpa at the disco.The Guardian. Sunday, May 29, 2016.

Tubular Labs. 2015. The Rise of Multi-Platform Video: Why Brands Need a Multi-Platform Video Strategy.

Questions about the four screens or anything else related to video production? Drop us a line and we'll do our best to answer them.