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Does Anyone Really Watch TV Anymore?

In my years of producing programs, I’ve discovered that few people really watch TV – in the sense of sitting there, focused solely on the screen.  In today’s world of multi-tasking, people are more likely to be doing something else while they’re also “watching” your program.  My wife irons clothes while she watches TV, and I’m usually catching up on my magazine reading.

I discovered this phenomenon years ago when I saw the Woody Allen movie “Zelig” in the theater.  Zelig was filmed in a mock documentary style, and was based on the fictional story of a man who wanted to blend in with the crowd so much, he actually transformed himself into the types of people he was with at any given time.  Thus, when he was with African-American jazz musicians, he morphed into an African-American jazz musician, or when he was in a hospital, he transformed like a chameleon into a member of the hospital staff.

His emotional desire to fit in was so great, his physical body somehow followed suit.

It was a wonderful fable about how badly people want to fit into society, and I liked the movie so much, that when it came out on video, we invited two other couples over one night to see the film.  But the moment I put the video into the player, something strange happened.  Instead of getting everyone’s rapt attention, my wife popped up and said, “I’ll go and fix dessert for everyone.”

One of the other wives followed her into the kitchen to help.  Then, another one  pulled out some knitting needles, her husband reached for a magazine, and the final guy picked up a book.

Exasperated, I stood up and said, “Hey, I wanted you to watch this movie!”  But they all looked at me like I had lost my mind and said, “We are watching the movie.”

At that moment I realized that’s the way people watch TV today.  No one really sits there focused on the screen.  Most people are eating, getting dressed, playing around with a hobby, or something else.

It wasn’t long before I noticed that when I travel, after I check into my hotel room, the first thing I do is turn on the TV.  I have no plans to actually watch it, but apparently I like the room noise – my little video friend in the corner.  Television has become the background noise of our lives, and we watch in spurts and grab snatches of it on the fly.

And perhaps that’s the most unique thing of all about television.  We actually comprehend it without watching.  We can work in another room only passing by the set periodically, read a magazine, or talk with friends, but we’re still able to track with much of the programming.

Read the following e-mail I received the other day:

Aoccdrnig to rsceearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclae.  The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm.  This is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.

That strange little exercise was designed to show how the brain works when it comes to reading.  It’s not the detailed spelling that really matters.  We apparently grab words in groups and understand them in the context of the actual sentence.

It’s not that different viewing television.   We don’t often watch TV to the exclusion of any other distraction, but we can still grab enough meaning to make sense of the program.

But that also means producers and brands need to become better at cutting through the clutter of our lives to get the audience’s attention to make sure that meaning happens.  If people are multitasking through life, we need to make our programs stand out enough to capture the audiences attention and re-focus them toward our vision.

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  1. I certainly know what you mean. There are certain types of shows and movies(comedies, family films) where it only requires bits and pieces to really follow what’s going on and appreciate what you’re seeing. Then there are those films that really pull you in and you need to keep your eyes glued to follow the story and pick up everything that the creators intended for you to see (No Country for Old Men, 8 1/2, Three Colors Trilogy.)

    It does seem to be a nightly ritual between my wife and I that when we’re watching I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Colbert Report or other shows of the sort that we’re often working on a video or reading our e-mail. I suppose some of this comes from living in an ADD society.

  2. I tend to focus on one thing at a time but I have been guilty of eating dinner and watching tv…quite a bit actually.

    However, there is one show that I faithfully shut off the phones, don’t answer the door, and am 100% focused and that is “24.” That 1-2 hours is a known “no distractions” hour for me because I don’t want to miss one moment of the show.

    Perhaps if more tv shows were written this well, they would garner the same response…or maybe it’s just me?

    Remaining Steadfast,

  3. That strange little exercise was designed to show how the brain works when it comes to reading. It’s not the detailed spelling that really matters. We apparently grab words in groups and understand them in the context of the actual sentence.

  4. Not just you! I'm a "24" junky. My only fear with that show is that they've waited so long since the last one and they're not playing re-runs to keep it fresh in everyone's minds. I hope they still have an audience next January. Of the few shows that I watch, that one totally rocks!! But the writers have to make Jack a bit more human – let us see him fraying at the edges. (OK a little side-tracked from the blog. But there's probably something about branding in "24". Maybe, for potential creators out there, look for lesser-known exceptionally talented actors (i.e. Bill Buchanan's character, or the Iranian actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo, from Season 4. Wow – did she get an Emmy for that role? It's worth renting the DVDs just to see her talent.) OK ~ now, back to the blog.

  5. Honestly, I think there's a difference between "watching a movie" and "having the TV on".  I do the same thing in hotel rooms.  I turn the TV on and then get on with packing or unpacking – I like the background noise.  But when I've invited my friends over to watch a movie, I certainly expect them to sit there and watch it!  If someone has to get water or use the facilities, we hit pause!  Honestly, I think your friends were a little rude and you were right to be frustrated.  I guess it depends on intention.  Do you intend to just have the TV on while a dessert party happens or do you intend to experience a story?  Perhaps your dessert party story is an example of mismatched expectations? 

    A similar idea is music: the same people who go to the symphony or even the Knitting Factory will put that music (to which they listened with such focus) on in the background while they work or play.  While I agree that the tendency to use TV or movies as background noise these days has increased, I don't think it has gone out of style completely.

    All that said, I do agree with the intent of your post – that:

    "…producers and brands need to become better at cutting through the clutter … to get the audience’s attention to make sure that meaning happens… to make our programs stand out enough to capture the audiences attention and re-focus them toward our vision."

  6. Recently I was watching FOX news and they had Political analyst Carl Rove. He was talking about bounce and bounce time. When he was the campaign manager for President Bush, they new their bounce time was about 4 days. In other words, 8 years ago when they gave a speech they knew the speech would be in the hearts and minds of people for about 4 days, he later went on to explain how today’s rules have drastically changed. He said the bounce time, today its about 1 hour!

    As for the TV watching people are not watching… we are doing other things…. this tells me more and more that Personal Media Devices are going to be the future. My question is how do we as church media consultants educate the church or give the church tools to equip the ministry to stay in front of people, make commitments to attend or better yet make commitments to Christ, seems like the brand is becoming more and more important.


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