Testing times

Splitting the pot

Our understanding of the brain was advanced for many years by unfortunate people who had impaled themselves with a javelin or an axe.  Provided they survived, but only just, they could donate their brains to medical science while still using them.  After a fashion.

Frontal lobe shot to pieces?  OK, do you think that your best mate has been replaced by a facsimile?  Thought so.  That’s what your frontal lobe stops you doing.

Two brain halves severed in a catastrophic knife-throwing incident.  Please feel this object (a banana, say) under a cloth and tell us what it is.  You can’t!

Anyway, curse you MRI and CT scans for robbing these unlucky people of a profitable post-trauma sideline.

TV quiz programmes have provided a similar experiment for behavioural economists to test their hypotheses.  Behavioural theories challenge many assumptions of traditional economics and marketing, by showing how contextually malleable our decision-making and opinions are.

One or two also provide a demonstration of game theory in action.

Game theories have been in the news recently: the death of ‘A Beautiful mind subject John Nash, creator of the Nash Equilibrium. And the Greece-Eurozone crisis allowed my FT colleague Giles Wilkes to position the standoff as a variant on the ‘prisoners dilemma’.


From the Financial Times/ Giles Wilkes: How Eurozone hardliners see the benefits – Grexit is better than mutual concession

Why is this a variant?  Because in a normal prisoners dilemma, the prisoners benefit from cooperating whereas, the opposing camps in Greece vs Creditors see the advantages from cooperation only accruing to the other side.

What can quiz shows tell us?  They allow researchers to examine behaviour with real financial stakes – with budgets most academic institutions would be unable to risk.

In his recent book ‘Misbehaving’, Richard Thaler looks in detail at Deal or No Deal, and a particular episode of the ITV quiz GoldenballsDeal or No Deal shows how our attitudes to risk shift according to circumstance – prospect theory in action.   But Goldenballs is more interesting because it involves competitive decision-making.

It involves two competitors accumulating a pot of money. Each player, in secret, then chooses whether to split the money with the other player, or to attempt to steal all of it.

If they both choose to split then that’s what happens: the money is shared.  If they both try to steal, then neither wins anything (equivalent to the two prisoners shopping their accomplice and being sent down for a long stretch).  But if one agrees to steal, and the other offers to split, then all the money goes to the one stealing.

I only watched a couple of episodes because I found the whole thing deeply unpleasant.  For the viewer there are two happy endings – when the players both split (shared joy), or both players steal (schadenfreude all round..).  But on what possible basis can one take pleasure in watching a selfish ‘stealer’ benefiting from the more generous nature of the ‘sharer’?

I have many character flaws, but if I were on Goldenballs I would never opt to steal. I couldn’t live with myself, and to be exposed on TV as a selfish shitford?  More than that, I’d dump any friend who stole all the money – even from a stranger – under such circumstances.

Take a look at the finale of the episode of Goldenballs that Thaler examines.  It’s a thing of beauty:

And there’s an interesting post-script which I won’t tell you in case it spoils the clip, but you can hear a terrific radio programme about it here.

What’s all this to do with TV audiences?

Well, very little in fact.  But how do householders negotiate choices around programme that are on at the same time?  Doesn’t one have to win, and the other lose?

Viewers calibrate their viewing choices according to the perceived behaviour of others, and choose to watch programmes that their network of friends will also watch.  They see what others are planning to do, and go the same route.  It’s win-win.  The network provides some reassurance about the quality of the programme, and, at the very worst, a chance to talk about how crap it was.  We all enjoy that.

But sometimes there are schedule clashes.  How do they choose? Well by watching on catch-up, or using a PVR to record the programme of course.  Or watching in separate rooms.  Happens all the time.  But that’s cheating, and in any case it doesn’t describe what normally happens – we prefer to watch with someone else.  But a lot of the time, choices are made purely from the spirit of co-operation – people like to watch programmes together.  Co-operation is built in.

And the biggest demonstration of behavioural economics that TV viewing provides is the yawning gap between how we think we watch TV and how we actually watch, and the primacy of contextual factors, of heuristics, of, you name it, over a content-driven individualistic choice.

And it’s a mystery why TV marketers don’t deploy behavioural techniques to encourage co-operation.  The schedule is a major element, but they could go further – communicate the crowd, illustrate co-operation as a principle underpinning the experience.

Television isn’t about stealing. It’s either about doing your own thing. Or doing it with others. And even when it is about doing your own thing, then buried deep within your subconscious, like an iron bar embedded in the head, lies the sense of splitting the experience with other people.

And that’s why I like it.



If you liked the above clip – then take a look at this one from The Bank Job on Channel 4, with far bigger stakes.












And that’s what really hurts

Doing it to yourself



When I was a toddler, I reached up to a table and pulled down a pan of boiling water onto my arm.  It melted my skin, leaving ugly swollen patches from my wrist to my upper arm.  Fortunately, it missed my face, leaving untouched the beauty which attracts admiring glances to this day.  But as a child I was so embarrassed by my arm that I would avoid short-sleeved shirts.

I think of this sometimes when I see the young folk with their ugly arm tattoos.  But whereas I was only a toddler when my accident happened, these people have chosen to scar themselves for life.

It reminds me of the words to that song:

You do this to yourself, you do, and that’s what really hurts

What’s all this got to do with TV anyway?

Well, often we are  our own worst enemy.

The BBC has had to cut its budgets further because more people than expected (c. 7% of households) have given up having a TV and now only watch via catch-up. These few (but so proud) people no longer need to pay the license fee.

Why have they given up TV?  Because the BBC has practically told them to.  It has spent years pushing iPlayer – providing the very means by which these refuseniks are able to avoid having a TV.  It produces terrific iPlayer stats, but expressed as millions of ‘requests’.  So, 222 million TV requests in May. Sounds impressive.  But BBC1 alone has 300+ million hours of viewing per WEEK.   The media industry wouldn’t have such a  distorted view of on-demand viewing if numbers were reported the same way

The broadcasters seem to have spent longer selling the idea that you can make the unmissable unmissable by watching when you want than they have promoting the joys of live TV (the live TV that represents the vast bulk of their viewing anyway).  Why would they do that?  Why doesn’t it bang home the joys of watching NOW. Why doesn’t it promote the beauty of watching TV programmes on lovely big screens?

They did this to themselves.

Channel 4 has pushed 16-34s as the core audience group that matters more than any other. It was always an odd argument since young people have always watched less TV than they do later in life, and besides, many 16-34 year-olds like to watch TV with family members who are older anyway.

And does it really make sense to promote the generation with the least disposable income when they are the ones most likely to be diverted to other media?

They did this to themselves.

The TV industry allowed the nascent YouTube to show its clips.  So now your favourite TV programmes have attracted literally millions of views on that Google owned website.  And the reward? YouTube now has a virtual monopoly on on demand clips (80%+ share?), and parades itself not only as an alternative option for advertisers, but as the replacement for TV.

Well done the TV industry.

Long before YouTube invented vLogging, and provided original content, it was sustained by the broadcasters’ intellectual property.  No-one begrudges a little competition, but did we really want to entrench this monopolistic, foreign-owned, tax-avoiding behemoth?

They did this to themselves.

I worked at an American broadcaster many years ago, and at one point we faced competition from a new channel aping our content.  So we had a meeting to work out how we could ‘fuck them up’.  Because that’s how American corporatations have succeeded: by recognising the danger from competition and fucking it up as much as they can.  Eventually we bought the rival station.  We saw the same thing when Sky TV swallowed BSB.

Compare that with how the BBC operates.  Years later I was working at BBC World News, and many of us worried about the imminent arrival of Al Jazeera’s English language news station.  Sure enough, it launched in 2006 with a splash – David Frost, who had left the BBC to join Al Jazeera, had secured an interview with Tony Blair and aired it on its first day.  How did BBC World respond?  By featuring extracts from Frost’s scoop with Blair as its top story, crediting Al Jazeera for hour after hour.

There’s disrupting your competition, and there’s drawing a target on your arse to give your competition something to aim at.

We did that to ourselves.

Sometimes you have to change to be flexible to changing markets.  You can learn from the competition.  What you should never do, it seems to me, is give up your key assets too cheaply, or fight on the competition’s turf when your own pitch is better.

Don’t trade broadcast nickels for on-demand dimes, when you can benefit from both.

It’s not a gentlemanly business competing for the attention of audiences.  It’s an arms race in which the most committed competitor will win. You can’t do that if you fight with one arm tied behind your back.

No matter what your arm looks like.



It’s all on YouTube

Goes well with Cheese

Television Viewing: A How To Guide

If you're going to be picky, I'll have cider

If you’re going to be picky, I’ll have cider

The world turns and we no longer accept practices that were once normal.  Quite right too – there’s no place for all that… nonsense in modern society.

But what’s going on with wine?

People are sniffy about homeopathy because any effectiveness relies solely on the placebo effect, but wine fails blind test after blind test yet people still accept all the guff. If it’s really true that blindfolded people can’t differentiate white or red wine, and the same wine submitted twice to experts is judged differently each time, one is left to conclude that the whole thing is a monumental racket.  It’s particularly lame when experts suggest wines to go with particular type of food.  Look at this cobblers.

Goes well with New Zealand Chardonnay

Goes well with New Zealand Chardonnay

Light styled Red Burgundy. If that isn't too narrow

Light styled Red Burgundy. If that isn’t too narrow

A hare casserole goes well with a fruity beaujolais, apparently.

Your Combozola eating experience (it’s a cheese hybrid, from Germany), is enhanced if you get yourself some Tokaji Aszú, whatever that is.

Get yourself a life, more like, you ponce.

We know that context is important for TV programmes.  A drama can transport you from your mundane life to an immersive adventure – it’s a personal thing and works well with some lush attention.  Other programmes are more social – best enjoyed with other people watching together.

But how often do TV channels ever suggest to viewers that they consider matching the programme to their mood or situation.

On Demand TV is entirely based on you watched that, so you might like this, as if our future choices must be determined by our old ones.  But On demand is necessarily more about the content – it’s an active choice: one reason why it attracts such a small share.

But beyond scheduling programmes at particular times, live TV doesn’t bother to advise its audience, even though we all like to imitate others and to be nudged with suggestions.  Only Gogglebox shows you how to watch TV programmes (sit on a sofa and comment… that’s it...) no wonder it’s Channel 4’s biggest programme.

Many programmes show Twitter hashtags as a nudge to engagement, but only a tiny fraction of viewers can be arsed to join in with those.

How about some hashtags to instruct all the viewers:

#getyourhankiesready  #goodbitcomingupgetyourwifeinfromthegarden.  #itsthenewssositupstraight  #itsacomedyhaveyoutriedlaughing  #eatachocolateyouknowyouwantto

Here’s what TV channels could be advising its viewers about their programmes:

The News – show a crowd of people standing in front of their sofa saluting the screen, and the slogan  -‘The News, it’s what adults do’.

24 Hours in A&E – watch this while holding a photo of someone you love.

Top of the Pops – it’s now 1980.  Get the oldest person in the house to slag off the stupid hairstyles while the rest of you dance around. Do both if alone.

Do you use your phone in the cinema? Do you text during a play? Do you fuck. Put the phone AWAY. Avoid distractions, and show yourself some respect, it’s time for Antiques Roadshow.

Sunday Brunch – pour yourself a sherry, it’s a Sunday morning tradition. No wait, a bloody mary…  even better. Well, if you’re having vodka anyway, have a scotch. Two.

First Dates – it’s a programme about people on dates, looking for love. Wait until your partner’s asleep, then sneak down and watch while taking notes.

No Offence – to be honest, if you’re dim, you won’t get this one. Goes well with a complex Merlot, or Wensleydale.

EastEnders – admit it, you define yourself by the fact that you don’t watch it. Grow up. Define yourself by something else. Tonight at 8, take a positive step to a new you and tune in.

Springwatch – ever feel overwhelmed by the enormity of existence and diminished by the effort to get on? This programme goes well with existential angst.

University Challenge – Special mnemonic ‘M8 GAFF’ – ‘Monday, 8, Guess Answers For Fun’

Question Time – For goodness sake, don’t watch this with any old people. (or if you’re old, with any young people).  Better yet, don’t watch it at all.

Why don't more people do this?  It genuinely enhanced the adverts

Why don’t more people do this? It genuinely enhanced the adverts

TV at Eight

So, put up your fists, and I’ll put up mine

One of my favourite songs is Dinner at Eight by Rufus Wainwright, who wrote it about his relationship with his father, Loudon.

It’s a curiously angry lyric:

No matter how strong
I’m gonna take you down
With one little stone
I’m gonna break you down
And see what you’re worth

A David and Goliath story, with hints of Oedipal patricide. I like the reference to time: not dinner in the evening or when it’s ready, but dinner at eight.  Like a TV programme starting on time. The song describes a meal at which Loudon threatened to kill Rufus, when his son was disrespectful towards him.

While Loudon Wainwright is best known as  a singer (and excellent at the Royal Festival Hall two years ago), he pops up randomly on TV, on MASH 40 years ago, and in the first episode of Parks and Recreation.

Handsome fella: the singing surgeon from MASH

Handsome fella: the singing surgeon from MASH

But it’s the story of paternal angst that we’re interested in here, not a peripatetic career in TV comedy.

When you hear about the distant father and angry son, it puts me in mind of Broadcast Television and On demand Video. The people who talk up binging or cord-cutting, or who shake their head at the madness of the schedule…, they all see On Demand as David, armed with ‘one little stone’, killing off a giant.

Recently, the Financial Times was at it too.

As the good people at Thinkbox often point out, it doesn’t really matter how you watch TV, but if 86% is watched live, and all iPlayer viewing is only 2-3% of all BBC viewing then that’s important, no?

When someone claims that they don’t watch live TV, or says something crass about YouTube (look at this idiot), it has a curious effect on me.  I could laugh them off as mistaken, or point to their naked business interest in making things up.

But it goes well beyond that:

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I find End of TV comments hurtful.

It makes me sad and angry.  And it’s liable to make me adjust my feelings about the perpetrator in a way that I wouldn’t if we were talking about, let’s see… religion.

I dismiss those who only watch programmes on demand as atomised, isolated people, selfishly expecting everyone else to follow their lonely lead.

More broadly, while linear TV seems to be about a country synchronising its entertainment in the spirit of one-nationhood, on demand feels like every person for him- or herself.  Mrs Thatcher’s famous comment about society needs the next sentence to be understood properly: ‘there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’. Her reference to families softens it a little.  But the people who reject the idea of a schedule seem to barely believe in families either.

That’s what comes to my mind.

Is that mad?  Am I Loudon Wainwright threatening his son?  Why do I froth so?

There’s nothing wrong with doing something alone – I’ll often read, eat, defecate, walk, and write blog posts when I’m on my own.  The last play I saw, I saw alone. TV programmes are great on their own.  But the rejection of ‘TV together’ feels like a painful rejection of the values I hold dear, and much of my professional career.  Such as:

Binging Alone... is that what people really want?

Binging Alone… is that what people really want?

  • the research I’ve been involved with: how humans are driven by a desire to connect and watch scheduled TV to satisfy this need even at the cost of watching something they don’t like
  • the millions spent on measuring audiences, which shows how marginal on-demand is, currently
  • the idea that the lives of older people are as valid and interesting as the behaviour of teenagers

So, do I quiver when I hear some arse-clown dissing the schedule because I am a truth-seeker who abhors stupidity?   Or am I like Juror Number 3 in Twelve Angry Men, clinging to a guilty verdict because he wants to punish his son?

Why does it matter so much to me that the TV schedule survive and that the nay-sayers are proved wrong?  Why do I want their predictions carved onto 10 ft slabs of concrete and attached to their stupid ankles?


Perhaps I should just let it go… chill out. In the end, I can just watch a TV programme with my children and forget it.

Oh look, there’s a Eurovision programme tonight at 8.  On BBC3. A crowd of shiny Europeans warbling about love.

We’ll watch that together.  Yes we bloody will, yes, even if it’s shit.

Not TV at hate.

TV at Eight.







E is for Footie

EeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Goal

FootieWe recently looked at the way TV news had evolved in the past 40 years, but had now retreated from over-stretch because of the internet.  So TV news rarely needs to be available 24 hours a day because the internet can do that, and it doesn’t need to involve the audience commenting on screen, when that function is adequately covered by blogs, forums and twitter. TV news is for edited information and analysis by experts.

But what about football?  Someone recently pointed out that football rights for the Premier league takes up a quarter of TV programme costs in the UK, while the game takes up only 0.6% of total TV viewing. Which is weird, but points up the oddness of the market.  People will pay a fortune to watch something scarce, and live football is a rare, perishable commodity.  Perhaps you’ve noticed how many perfectly sensible people maintain odd loyalties to football teams they started to support because their dads were born there, or an utterly random reason.

It’s bloody stupid, but there you go.

When it comes to TV sport, we know what we like, but sometimes forget how far we’ve come:

I remember two research projects in India when I worked for Star TV.  The first time, we asked about Star Sports and audiences raved about it.  What a brilliant channel – it made the state broadcaster, Doordarshan look like an amateur.  Six months later, after ESPN had launched, we asked about Star Sports, and their response was .. meh.  Star Sports was now being compared with a superior competitor and found wanting.  Star Sports hadn’t changed, but its point of comparison had. Our expectations gets ratcheted up:

Chinny Reckon

When you hear someone who doesn’t understand TV suggesting that it is stuck in the 1970s, point them to Jimmy Hill.


Football was largely about edited highlights on Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon with occasional live international games or FA cup matches.  I can still remember watching Brian Clough, then the manager of Brighton and Hove, responding to his team losing 8-2 on The Big Match. Oh look, it’s on YouTube… Goodness that’s slow.  That, as the Jam might have said, was entertainment, but not as we now know it..


It has to be said, that while edited highlights can be super, the key to scarcity is not knowing what’s going to happen, and the anticipation. Even people who claim to never watch live TV – the liars – will sometimes admit that even they watch a loive football match from time to time (the truth is that many programmes from other genres are like live, communal football matches, but that’s advanced level stuff, and not for now). Ideally with other people. Sky TV’s fortunes may have been secured by football, but it’s worked both ways, transforming the way we appreciate the game. It’s brought the crowd in.


I once had a terrible temp job ushering at sports events.  The lowlight was a rainy match at Chelsea, next to the pitch, but where we had to stare at the crowd. Yes, we want the crowd, but not that much. In the spirit of audience involvement, football is now enabling audience members. From Soccer am, to Soccer Saturday, it’s all part of this process – it’s not all about watching matches, but recreating the fan experience.


Next, television has started helping the viewer acquire its Sweet FA coaching badges, by providing extra information on tactics, data on performance, 442, 433, 424, wing-backs, en passant, ‘them centre-backs’, we get a chance to apply the vast array of our cognitive functions to the question of whether the referee is bang out of order, or an absolute ledge.  We can all be Harry Redknapp.


I live in N5, the home of Arsenal, where half of the eateries in Blackstock Road and Highbury Park are sustained by weekend trade: a whole ecosystem built around match-day.  When football matches are on TV, social media enables the sedentary viewer to get stuck in, betting on matches, creating fantasy teams, interacting (in their imagination) with the players via Twitter.   But it all starts on-screen.


If the evidence for trickle down economics is thin, so is the evidence that televised sport gets people exercising.  Just as the world of tech has been trying for years to muscle its way into the TV experience, so it’s been looking for ways to insert itself between star Wayne Rooney and fan Wayne Spooney (random everyman name).  Nevertheless, there’s an effort to mobilise viewers into tech’s latest wheezes whether wearables, or virtual reality.  Coming next, compare your workrate with the stars, or immerse yourself via Oculus rift…


It’s wherever you want to be.  In the living room, of course, because that makes the most sense but not if you’d rather take it in the bathroom or shed.  Or down the pub. Or when you’re somewhere else.  For me, it’s more about who you are with and who it makes you think about (your fellow fans, your dad?).  I loath the way money has fixed the matches one way, the transfer of ££billions from poor fans to young millionaire, but I now watch because my sons are obsessed with the game. I’ll watch whenever they want to.


What it comes back to. Coverage of live matches and highlights, analysis and gossip, speculation and passion, fans and millionaires,  for audiences to enjoy, in HD on a massive screen, from multiple angles.  The premium of not knowing the result, of watching with others, and caring, in a way that makes absolutely no sense at all, for one of the teams.









Finding one’s voice

Tracey Thorn: Unrequited Affection

Tracey Thorn: I've been a fan since we were both teenagers

Tracey Thorn: I’ve been a fan since we were both teenagers. (From Traceythorn.com)

I’ve just finished Tracey Thorn’s new book Naked at the Albert Hall. Twenty four short chapters, each covering a different aspect of singing: the microphone, vibrato, breathing issues, stage fright and so on, and what have you got?  A perfect description of singing and being a singer.

The relationship between singer and fans gets a bit of a work out:

We feel so close to the singers we love – the delusion that the flow of understanding and knowing goes both ways; that the feelings engendered in our hearts, or brains, when we hear a song, can actually be experienced in return by the singer; that we know them and they know us in return; that the feeling is mutual. (Naked at the Albert Hall p107)

The way that vloggers on Youtube have distracted teenagers seems to stem from the same illusion of reciprocity.  And it’s peculiar that so many music lovers who feel this way about singers lose this need to connect with new voices as they get older, because for me the pleasure in connection never stops.  There’s music all over this blog for a start..

I’ve been a fan of Tracey’s since her solo album in 1982.  For a good 10 years, I told anyone who asked, and many who didn’t, that Too Happy was my favourite song (see below), and this is my favourite verse:

Just what has happened now I don’t know.  So happy 5 minutes ago. Laughing and talking of things that we planned.  Then a wrong word and you dropped my hand

But then I also bought Tracey’s albums when she was in the Marine Girls (on a double length cassette…), and most of the Everything But the Girl LPs.  I’ve been tracking the connections – she was was born 4 days after me, I almost went to the University of Hull where she went, and seem to see her out and about in London – a Rufus Wainwright gig here, sitting in the BBC foyer there – over the years.  Somehow I managed to avoid mentioning all this in the excitement of briefly meeting Tracey last year at my brother’s house.

Exciting for me.

It’s never bothered me that the love was always one way – the songs have given me too much pleasure to care that Tracey doesn’t know who I am.

These Early Days was played a lot when my children were tiny, Mirrorball helped me come down from my clubbing days, and Oh The Divorces! was some comfort (not much) when my marriage ended.

While music often appeals as a shared experience, ballads like these are personal, head-phones moments. So Tracey Thorn’s unwillingness to perform live is no barrier to enjoying her music.  I don’t need to watch her sing live.  As I reached the end of the book, I noticed that her paean to personal and private introversion reminded me of Susan Cain’s Quiet, and then she mentioned it herself.

But Thorn also puts her finger on the way music and TV can transport us when reminding us about Dennis Potter technique of using music in his dramas:

with the spoken word we usually stay within the realm of the real, the normal, the everyday. As soon as we sing, we move into new world; more fantastical, otherworldly, numinous. ..however shallow or meaningless popular songs may be, the emotions they evoke and trigger are not.

The songs become useful conduits for all the emotions that people cannot speak (p147)

While Everything But the Girl were releasing their sublime Baby the Stars Shine Bright, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective was being recorded for release later that year. As we watched the hospital patient in Potter’s drama being transported into an imaginary song and dance routine, Thorn was using her music to turn mundane feelings – even misery – into things of beauty.

I was a backwater girl, home most nights, but that was before I saw my name in lights. Stardom and squalor were not dreams of mine, but I’ve seen the Hollywood Sign now and oh how it shines (A Country Mile)

Turn your back and lay to rest the ghost of your unhappiness that flits around from room to room, a widow on a honeymoon, a shadow on a harvest moon.  I write these words to make them true, I’ve drowned my torch and so should you (Shadow on a Harvest Moon, from Idlewild)

What goes for music – for young people especially – is the role that TV takes on later.  It makes simple things magic.  Even a banal piece of light entertainment is transformed when watched in the cosy environs of a family watching together. It may be shallow but our response can be profound, teeing up our emotions and bringing us together every bit as much as a banging choon can bond people dancing together. TV dramas provide an escape into a world of others: we become other people the way Little Voice becomes Judy Garland.  The TV is both a time traveller machine, and a means to possess the bodies, souls and voices of others. Thorn extends this idea to a popular singing programme she enjoys:

What we are doing when we watch The X Factor is watching ourselves.  Those untrained singers who take to the floor, they are us.  It could be me, you might think – or even it doesn’t have to be me, I can watch you doing it for me… they sing as us, often not much better than us, they are us.  We watch them go on a journey and again, they are going on the journey so that we don’t have to (Naked at the Albert Hall p 216-7)

Anyway, thanks again Tracey, and Ben, for taking me on a journey whenever I play your music.


P.S. Next book: Ben Watt’s Romany and Tom.

Sweating the Big Stuff at 3am

Pulling an All-Nighter

It’s the eve of a General Election and one of the few nights when it’s perfectly normal to stay up late.

While not normally a fan of self-help books, I was struck many years ago by a chapter in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, in which Richard Carlson suggests that, from time to time, it’s good to luxuriate in the quietude of the night:

I usually get up between 3 and 4 in the morning. After a quiet cup of coffee, I usually spend some time doing yoga and a few minutes of meditation. … Sometimes I’ll just sit for a few minutes and do nothing. Virtually every day, I stop whatever I’m doing to enjoy the sunrise as it comes up over the mountain. The phone never rings, no one is asking me to do anything for them, and there is nothing I absolutely have to do. It’s by far the most quiet time of the day.

Many people have told me that this one shift in their routine was the single most important change they have ever made in their lives.

What a fabulous idea.  And Carlson wrote that in 1997, before the internet and mobile phones ruined our lives, so if anything it’s even more important now.  It sounds like a perfect way to discover an inner peace, and I’ve thanked him for the thought ever since.

Have I ever done that?  Got up at 3.30 am, just for the peacefulness?

Of course I haven’t.  It’s the middle of the bloody night.  I’m asleep like everyone else.

But not tonight.

Look at this chart I found at the FT.  It shows when seats will be declared tonight – a whole crowd of them from 3-4.30am.  Apart from helping those of us with psephological pretensions to pace ourselves, it’s reassuring for Lib Dems and Conservatives to know that their successful candidates tend to be revealed later in the process.


Apart from elections, the only other events momentous enough to get people watching TV at that time of night is a moon landing, a Las Vegas boxing event or a football match played somewhere far far away.

Like other times of day, when you say 3am, it suddenly conjures up a series of sensations.  Time is very tactile. The word temporal means time-related or spiritual – a reminder that time has a depth and a rhythmic quality that we might associate with ritualistic religious services.  And every time has something special about it.  It’s what broadcast TV thrives on.

6am – hmm early start.  May be dark.  That transition between being the previous night and the new morning. Is Open University still broadcasting or am I thinking of 1982?

5pm – Crackerjack, Pointless, the early evening news… whatever, this is very late afternoon.   Or it’s very very early evening.  Either way, I need a quiz to orientate myself.

10pm – Edgy.  Could be news, or something slightly rude. Go on, make me a little tense why don’t you..

I’m blessed with a quirky temporal synesthesia in which the very thought of certain times of day produce a delicately erotic rush.  Or at least a release of dopamine or endorphin, or whatever.

But 3am?  Yes, even 3am.  If it gives me a thrill to think about it.

For others it’s more of a migraine.

BBC World News, like other international broadcasters, struggles with the unsynchronised rhythms of its staff and its audience.  Perhaps its biggest audience is on the East Coast of America in peaktime, when PBS channels show the 10pm or 11pm  bulletin.  That’s 3am or 4am in the UK.  So the graveyard overnight slot, amidst the nocturnal stillness that Carlson describes , is when New York and Washington DC is tuning in.  These cities like energy don’t they?  A little Pzazz rather than zzzz.  But guys, it’s 4 in the MORNING.  The man is barely awake (or it’s recorded, which amounts to the same thing).

But tonight, for one night, a whole crowd will turn out.  From bleary-eyed returning officers to party activists, as well as a smattering of the hopelessly insomniac, new mums, security guards and other desk-bound shift-workers, we’ll all be together, waiting for news from Thanet West or Grimsby North, or whatever.

Not Goodnight, a good night.









Boyhood, Girlhood

Growing up

I’ve just watched Boyhood, the celebrated film about a boy growing up.

I loved it.  The whole thing. Between memories of my own childhood, of my children and being a parent, of my family and people I’ve loved, it was a deeply emotional experience.

And the characters. If understanding their motivations is all you need to ‘become them’, I was there all the way.  I felt what they felt, I was there in the room… I aged with them.

We saw a family growing up, the stages of childhood and adolescence, the friendships that start and stop and start and stop, and the peculiar physical changes.  There were continuities – the familial love and the character of each person – amidst the constant change.

While I hate to bring such a transcendent experience down to the banality of the world of media issues will you indulge me?

Consider the words of the song in the video above:

Let me go, I don’t wanna be your hero

I don’t wanna be a big man

Just wanna fight with everyone else

Your masquerade

I don’t wanna be a part of your parade

Everyone deserves a chance to walk with everyone else

When you watch Mason, the main character, growing up – the film was filmed over 12 years – you realise how transient each stage is. He looks similar but different each time we see him.  He’s the same person, but his behaviour and situation changes.  The 12 years from age 6 to 18 are the most exciting, and the most painful of our lives.  You can’t watch Boyhood without remembering your own adolescence – the awkwardnesses, the obsessions and the half-forgotten stages we all go through as we find out who we are. Close friends, cherished haircuts and beloved clothes are outgrown but won’t be painted over easily, unlike height marks on a wall.

I thought about the way we imbue every opinion and behavioural shift from this ‘millennial’ generation with importance: if they watch a little less TV, or if they don’t do something we used to do, or they say Facebook or TV (or radio, or whatever) is over, then it must mean we should sell all our stock.

You could interpret the lyrics as a rejection of how adults behave (I don’t want to be a part of your parade).   Or, more likely, the words and the film may describe a young person resigning from a dead-end job they didn’t want and didn’t apply for.  What job?  The job of carrying the hopes of an entire industry of disruption-obsessed digital experts. Because while Mason is falling in love and discovering himself, he may not watch much TV, or read much news, or (.. what have you got?), but that doesn’t mean that he won’t change if and when he settles down.  He has a load to go through and his media behaviour is just one part of that.  Please please please fuck OFF while I work some things out, he might say..

He doesn’t want his current behaviour to define his whole life.

Yet an industry has risen up to do just that.

We see Mason’s mum marrying two awkward men along the way, but also meet her first husband, played by Ethan Hawke, Mason Jr’s father, Mason.  Broadcast TV is a little like Mason Sr. He’s entertaining, and provides a supportive and stimulating lead.. not demanding too much attention, but a benign force for continuity, cheerfully connecting the children with each other and the wider world as they grow.    He’s a curiously great character.

And I see the peculiarly demanding behaviour of Mason’s subsequent husbands as the problem.  They transmit their neediness to teenagers, demanding that they submit, and becoming stroppy when they resist.  Their insistence that the behaviour of the teenagers will become fixed and change everything, sounds familiar to anyone forced to read about millennials all the time.

Media fable or not, Boyhood is a wonderful, wonderful film for anyone who was once a teenager, or who cares about them.  Have you not seen it?  Rectify that.


Top Gear News

Thriving, Driving, Clarifying

Thompson, Clarkson: life at the BBC

Thompson, Clarkson: life at the BBC and Davy’s Wine Bar. 2010

I can’t lie… my career at the BBC didn’t let me into the intimate Top Gear circle. I took this photo of Mark Thompson and Jeremy Clarkson, and I knew people who knew people, and we used the Top Gear room for meetings…  But I wasn’t on nodding terms with The Stig.


Top Gear used to run on BBC World, the (largely) news channel which broadcasts globally.  As well as news, the channel carried travel and nature programmes. In the early 2000s, Top Gear was all about cars.  If you played a game of word association, ‘car’ might bring up ‘road safety’, ‘fuel efficiency’, ’30 miles an hour’ or, at a pinch, ‘plenty of poke on an uphill climb’.  They covered the range.

Their sudden insight was that instead of being about cars and how they go (zzzz), they should celebrate the pleasure of driving.  It’s not about motor, but the companionship and adventure to be found on the open road.  A ‘car programme’ might have balanced the presenters by providing a mixture of voices – say, a driver, a mechanic or salesman and a female expert (like Ground Force with Tommy, Titchmarsh and Dimmock). But a programme about driving could make do with three fellow travellers, or travelling fellows.

It was a clever idea, and audiences in the UK soared in response.

But Top Gear had never made much sense on a news channel, and watching Jeremy Clarkson bantering with chums in front of a studio audience felt out of place on BBC World in between live two-ways from war-zones and the latest business news.

Clearly many viewers liked the programme, but when we asked consumers about BBC World we found that they didn’t really know what the channel was.  They knew what CNN was but BBC World?  The name was too woolly.  You can be many things as a channel, but being unfocussed strikes me as a problem (and as an aside, what is BBC America doing scheduling Star Trek?).  BBC World was fundamentally a news channel, so why not say so.

If Top Gear had prospered by being true to its identity, we needed to do the same for BBC World.

So over the years, the channel’s slogan was changed from the weak ‘Demand a Broader View’, to ‘Putting News First’, and we changed the name from BBC World to BBC World News.  And Top Gear was taken off the channel along with other non-news elements.

Top Gear and BBC World News both saw their audiences grow when they embraced a cleaner, clearer identity.

If I have a regret it’s that we didn’t create a tonal shift for BBC World News in the way Top Gear had.  We needed to embrace the power of news with the same single-mindedness that Top Gear had celebrated the open road and that car drivers feel at a green light:

Vroom…. we bloody LOVE News because of the amazing stories.. put your foot dow..

Vroom…. it’s powerful stuff that connects … there’s a hairpin… diverse people

It… oh my good gawd… it.. changes every minute of every day but also (stomach in mouth) has patterns you start to notice

VROOM… it’s about humanity and love and fucking EVENTS and history unfolding and… oh my..  scientific breakthroughs

Strap yourself in because it may be a bumpy ride, and you know what’s coming, it’s more




I don’t think management were ready.












Head space

Benign growth in the temporal lobe

The temporal lobe.  it's the blue bit, as any brain surgeon can tell you

The temporal lobe. it’s the blue bit, as any brain surgeon can tell you

Last night I became emotionally drawn watching two 24 Hours in A&E back to back.  How do the staff cope with binging on 10 episodes whenever they come to work?

One of the more worrying cases concerned a 62 year-old man injured in a car crash.  He could speak, but there was concern that he may have suffered fatal head injuries.  Thankfully he was OK, but it happens: patients can speak normally for a while despite something profound having happened inside their head with catastrophic consequences.

In ‘Do No Harm’, Henry Marsh’s terrific memoir of his life as a brain surgeon, he describes a 40 year-old cyclist who had been admitted after an accident, and quotes a member of staff:

‘The police said he was talking when they found him but when he was admitted to the local hospital he started fitting….I know he was talking at first and in theory might make a good recovery, but sometimes you get delayed intraparenchymal bleeding like this and the scan shows catastrophic brain damage’

Marsh often carries our brain surgery under local anaesthetic:

the brain cannot feel pain since pain is a phenomenon produced within the brain.  If my patients’ brains could feel me touching them they would need a second brain somewhere to register the sensation..

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm, p.187

Why am I saying all this? Because these brain issues are relevant for understanding how to conduct research and how to market to consumers.

The medical profession has given the various tumours names like glioblastoma, meningioma or (my favourite, and it’s normally benign) the haemangioblastoma.  Some are fatal, some aren’t, some grow quickly and others not, and treatments vary.  But we haven’t found a language for the various ways in which advertising impacts on our brain – what’s a benign version of ‘trauma’?  People might talk about low attention processing, or System 1 and 2, but we need a decent lexicon to describe the long and short term effects.  Because without it, we are forced to rely on what people say – the people whose brains are being affected.  And that’s one of the least reliable signs, like asking the cyclist above to explain how the accident would affect his future commuting.

The popularity of tracking real-time responses misses the long-term impact of what is going on inside the brain.  So on the one-hand we can track online responses like never before.  On the other we are learning more every day from people like Kahneman (Marsh is a fan), and from case studies of effective marketing that some effects take longer to work.

The first rule of brain surgery, and research

The first rule of brain surgery, and research

Les Binet and Peter Field have explained how the skill required to sell a product there and then is different from the skill required to win over a consumer.  Buying is about short-term activation – a rational call to action such as a new promotion –  but brand building is about creating mental space, and is best achieved through creative and sustained marketing.  Profit comes from the latter.

Binet and Field recently repeated some of these points in work for the Direct Mail people.  (Click here to watch a terrific presentation.  There will be buffering – if you scroll to 29:00 you can get the best 10 minutes).

And many in the market research industry understand this, but chuck it out in favour of the latest gimmick.  So in the current General Election 2015 we’ve seen party leader debates in which viewers have been entertained by voters giving running scores – a worm along the screen.  And from snap polls immediately after.  But it’s likely that our initial response will be different from our considered one. We might have been distracted by how the candidate looked or sounded, while deeper resonances were taking place at a deeper level.

For those of us in market research, the most compelling part of Binet and Field’s analysis compares the relative value of pretesting advertising versus brand tracking:

psychological theory suggests that implicit responses to advertising (where the emotional impact of the campaign is measured by comparing associated brand ratings before, and some time after, the campaign has been seen) are better measures of emotional impact than explicit communication scores (where consumers are asked what emotional impressions the campaign had upon them). 

Response rates to on and offline advertising are likely to be predictive of short-term sales only. Worryingly these kinds of metrics are often regarded as complete success metrics:
it should by now be clear how dangerous this belief is. Even more worrying is the drive to develop real-time campaign management systems driven by these short-term response metrics: unless such systems are heavily counter-balanced by long-term metrics and activity, they could prove to be a death-sentence for brands. 

Binet/ Field, The Long and the Short p72.

Binet and Field. Sometimes you need two brains

Binet and Field. Sometimes you need two brains

Well, it’s not a death sentence of the type Henry Marsh discloses to unlucky patients, but still…

You can see what happens: the creative team conjures up a brilliant commercial to make audiences remember a brand. The advert is subjected to pre-testing in which respondents give their immediate response.  So the advert is canned or changed – its emotional power stripped out – to make it more persuasive in the short-term.

OR, the campaign runs, and is evaluated in terms of immediate sales and not long-term impact.

This is sacrificing long-term success for temporary buzz, and is hopeless.

Just as a patient might appear normal while their brain is dying, a consumer might have been affected deeply by advertising while unaware that it’s happened.

And just as brains cannot sense themselves, it requires another brain, ours, to interpret what is happening inside the heads of the audiences we are seeking to understand. And we need to recognise that what happens there and then, is not the end of it.

The best television programmes and the best marketing doesn’t always work instantly – it stays with you and releases its magic for weeks or months.

This is NOT brain surgery, but it is about engaging our brains, and paying proper respect to temporal issues.

Having said all that.  Some things work instantly AND over a long time. Two years on, and my price elasticity for Robinson’s squash remains very low…



Post Script: While I was writing this (it takes me longer than you might think) I heard that a beloved friend and former colleague in TV audience, had suffered a stroke.  A reminder that the brain is a robust but also vulnerable organ.  I wish her a speedy recovery though as with everything else, these things can take time.