Archives for July 2015

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  OK, do you think that your best mate has been replaced by a facsimile?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