When one of TV's top scripted dramas returns next week for its fourth season, the crack investigative team of "NCIS: Los Angeles" will employ technology in an entirely new way: to capture the second screen in the living room.
CBS is offering an iPad application that synchronizes with each episode and delivers content designed to complement the TV viewing experience. The "NCIS: Los Angeles Connect" app, available Tuesday through Apple Inc.'s iTunes store, will afford viewers the chance to examine evidence more closely, learn more about the suspects and vote on whom they believe committed the crime.
"Anyone who watches 'NCIS: Los Angeles' knows that it’s a show that uses a lot of technology. Technology really is very much front and center when we break our stories," said Executive Producer Shane Brennan. "When the opportunity came up for us to get involved in this app, it seemed to use to be a perfect fit because it allows the audience to become interactive ... and for those 43 minutes, to become part of the investigation."
Television networks have been grappling with the intrusion of a "second screen" in the living room -- the industry's term for a mobile phone, laptop or tablet computer. These devices increasingly vie for the viewer's attention. Indeed, one Nielsen report this spring found that 61% of people checked their email while watching TV.
Networks are experimenting with ways to harness these smaller screens in a bid to keep the viewer engaged in the TV shows. A new "X-Factor" app from Fox launches this fall, with the start of the new season, will offer background on the performers, clips and voting, according to the network's vice president of digital platforms Hardie Tankersle. AMC similarly has a mobile app that delivers behind the scenes features, interviews and updates for shows including "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad."
"The second screen has exploded within the last two years," said Guy Finley, executive director of the 2nd Screen Society. "There are companion experiences that need to happen, that are absolutely essential to the evolution of how we engage our consumers on the whole."
At CBS, the new "NCIS: Los Angeles" application provides the show's creators an opportunity to serve its fans -- to take them into the crime lab to get a detailed look at evidence that may flash on the TV screen for seconds or dive deeply into a character's back-story.
Brennan said the interactive elements allow the show's writers to expand the storytelling beyond the time constraints of the broadcast hour. Two dedicated staff members comb through script as much as six weeks ahead of production, identifying digital "modules" for the app, he said.
"My concern was it might require more time than it actually has," Brennan said. "It’s actually fitted into what we do in a natural kind of way."
Viewers can talk about the show on Facebook or Twitter -- without ever leaving the app. The supplemental features are available, whether the viewer catches the show during its scheduled broadcast time or records it and watches later.
"People are on these devices anyway," said Marc DeBevoise, senior vice president and general manager of entertainment at CBS Interactive. "If you're going to be on that device, we're saying, 'We'll give you something else to do while you're there. '
"We’re not going to say, "Don't wander," DeBevoise said. "We're saying, 'Hey, wander back.'"