Active or Passive Television?

As I think about the “future” I think a lot about existing audience behavior, and what patterns might be changing. Too much talk is overarching of “All Television” — as in “the future is ALL binge-watching” or “the future is ALL mobile” or etc. To ponder the future, we must get specific about patterns and trends, and determine their implications.

As a starting point to divide the conversation somewhat, I believe there are two fundamental modes of “watching TV” — an active and a passive mode:

Active television watching. This is Game of Thrones. This is the season finale of Idol. This is any episode of Broadchurch. The shows that you watch and do virtually nothing else. You are captive in the action, the drama, the storytelling. And for different folks, this is different shows, genres, networks, etc.

Passive watching. Basically everything else — the shows that are half-captivating your attention, and by definition, half-not-captivating your attention. This is when people Tweet, Text, Facebook, Snap-o-gram, or whatever other thing that may catch their eye.

With those definitions in mind, let’s consider the potential for change. From my perspective, passive watching is a definitive activity, and one that people still enjoy. Its the same as having music on — the show is the background activity. TV is not threatened here, because it’s just not the primary thing going on in the viewers’ mind. And this is also where the “$0.50 of every $1.00 spent on ads is thrown out” — because at best the advertiser gets a little brand awareness. It’s not really measurable, and a near-irreplaceable activity. You can’t really passive watch YouTube, nor passively use Facebook — these are both primary activities. Conclusion 1: passive TV audiences will become increasingly un-monetizable, across any platform. Conclusion 2: passive TV viewing is most vulnerable to anything that creates entertainment-related background noise (hence Pandora being one of the most popular “apps” on smart TVs).

And as for changing active watching? Well good luck with that. There’s just too much great TV, in literally every genre available, to pull away from. If, for the purposes of this discussion, we define “TV” as 22- and 44-minute long shows, then we can also assert that YouTube clips/videos are not directly competitive of active viewing TV behaviors. Regardless of the delivery platforms — be they live, streaming, on-demand, linear, whatever — this is a deliberate, desired activity by whomever is watching. And they’ll keep tuning in long into the future of whatever it is we call television.

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Originally published at on February 5, 2015.

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