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.