What TV is good for
What is TV good for? The linear, traditional TV of 1969. No, really. This is a legit question. It’s the 21st century. Rigid timelines of massively parallel broadcasts of more of the same should be a thing of the past. Or, maybe not yet.
OK, look at the numbers, viewer shift is happening. To quote this complaint of the American Marketing Association:
Adults between the ages of 50 and 64 spend 191 hours per month watching traditional (rather than time-shifted) TV, according to Nielsen, and those over 65 watch more than 223 hours per month. Teens, by contrast, spend 84 hours per month watching TV.
The younger they are, the less they watch. Like bingo, traditional television smells a bit like an unkempt retirement home. People are dying here! TV is past its prime. Thank you, case closed. Or, is it?
Now bear with me. Let me read you the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of watch.
Look at or observe attentively over a period of time.
Do 50–64 year olds “observe attentively” for more than 6 hours per day what’s happening in the box? Mind you, this is an average we’re looking at. There must be people out there “attentively observing” the tube 24/7. And if you ever observed attentively a Teenager: does the majority of teens have an attention span of 2 hours plus of single-minded daily dedicated observation of anything? Besides that: a daily active usage of 2 hours plus sounds like user stats any super successful web service would kill for. You’re looking for a Facebook killer? Take grampa’s television.
There seems to be something a bit off-kilter. So I decided to take a fresh look at this TV thing again.
and TV’s job is …
Working with my friends at Magine TV, a Stockholm-based OTT TV service, I looked for some answers by applying Clayton Christensen’s Jobs To Be Done-framework. JTBD’s core concept looks like this: people don’t buy a product. They “hire” a product to get a “job” done. The researcher’s job is to identify the job people want to get done.
The outcome can, sometimes, be rather surprising. Christensen’s milkshake-example is all about the insight, that if you know what job a product is hired for, you can much better improve and scale.
“The fact that you’re 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product,” Christensen says. “It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn’t cause it. We developed this idea because we wanted to understand what causes us to buy a product, not what’s correlated with it. We realized that the causal mechanism behind a purchase is, ‘Oh, I’ve got a job to be done.’ And it turns out that it’s really effective in allowing a company to build products that people want to buy.”
Same goes with TV. We know for a fact that billions of people are “hiring” television on a daily base. But what is television’s job to them?
Jobs To Be Done is qualitative research. You try to find answers by analyzing longform interviews, which follow a clearly defined timeline. Never ask directly. Stated preferences are your enemy. You chat your people up to get the the gist of what you need to know.
As a former full time journalist, I felt quite comfortable in going this direction. And it worked reasonably well. Most results are of course proprietary. But let me share a couple of things with you: forget about inform and entertain as the core driving factors. There are two core jobs TV has to fix, depending on personal needs. Because not all of you TV viewers are created equal. What we can identify are two quite different sets of viewer personas:
- there are the bespoke attentive TV personalities
- and there are the many owners of an animated wallpaper
total attentive immersion: your personal off switch
Let’s start with the fully immersed, totally attentive viewer. The job he needs done is what you would actually expect from “hiring” TV: get effortlessly tuned out of your daily life.
If there’s a Santa for media executives, the attentive viewer will make top of their wish lists. Turn on, tune in, drop out: they are the idiotes savantes you need in any ad recall measurement. There are a couple of subgroups here, which differ mostly in how they discover what they want to watch. But their typical user journey starts always like this: I’m coming home from work and need to turn off the day. The subgroups mostly differ in how they choose what to watch.
- totally passive: you have a relevant subset of two handfuls of channels. You turn on and start to watch what’s on your favorite channel. If you’re not satisfied, you switch to the next channel. You prefer to zap or maybe use an EPG to get a quick overview on what’s currently up. You might even know when your fav show is running. You’re mostly satisfied with the work the professionals did in programming a timeline. Because everything else would be way too much work.
- somewhat picky: you have some kind of an idea what you want to watch. Or, maybe even more important: what you do not want to watch. You might have programmed a PVR to record your favorite things. Because this one time effort brings some pleasure later on when you’re in the mood to watch something (but not anything).
- totally picky: there’s just a couple of highlights you’re after. Maybe top sports events. Maybe top movies. Maybe the daily news (if you are in a decidedly un-Teen age bracket). You actively plan around those events.
You might have recognized yourself already in all three of those subgroups. Which is not too surprising. Those preferences have just a different weight. If you’re totally picky and down with the flu, you easily switch into your totally passive persona.
If you’re leaning towards pickiness, a SVOD service like Netflix sounds like a present from heaven. If you’re the totally passive viewer, you might actively hate the concept. Because, as one of the interviewees mentioned: actively looking for some program to watch is way too much work.
That’s probably one of the main reasons why series and binge watching work so well on SVOD: when a movie ends, you go back to zero and have to start searching all over again. But after the first 13 episodes of a series, you just move on to season two.
extensive wallpapering: radio with benefits
Remember the average viewing numbers? 84 hours per month, 191 hours, 223 hours for 65+. TV can look like a full time job, even if you’re not working in media. Not too surprisingly, those viewing hours are only slightly connected to attentive watching. The time is spent with media, but not on media. For those people, TV’s job, to stay in the JBTD-framework, is not immersion, not entertaining. They just need a companion.
A typical example goes like this: you work home alone, be it running a household, working in your home office, preparing your student homework whatever. You sit in front of your notebook. But somewhere in the room, not too far away is a running TV set. It’s either totally muted (if you’re the sensitive type), softly babbling (probably the majority) or blaring in full power (yes, granny, I’m looking at you).
Those TV sets are actually doing what the name television is promising: you can see something happening, far, far away. It’s a window to the world. And like with real windows looking over a street or a back yard, you’re not glued to the view. It’s a just very nice and humane distraction. Being able to look out of a window beats staring at a white washed wall. Mind you, a running TV set cannot (yet) substitute a real window. TV lacks spatial information, the color temperature does usually not match your biorhythm and the time of the day. But it adds a social layer: TV is constantly trying to tell you more or less entertaining stories. You don’t have to ask for anything, search for anything, do anything. If you open the hose, it will never stop until it gets your attention. Then you might turn up the volume and watch for a minute or two.
It’s visual radio (a medium, which used to be an immersive one as well). But without the ads literally shouting at you, because the visual attention grabbing is there as well.
The real television is a talking, animated wallpaper.