Evolving TV – news

Inform, inspire, innovate, interpret, invigorate…

Sometimes change is hard to spot. It creeps up on you while you’re busy.

We didn’t suddenly get fat, and TV’s didn’t suddenly get thin.

Or rather they did, though you wouldn’t know by Googling ‘Television’, where your screen will be covered with images of boxy numbers from the 1960s with aerials, legs and dials you have to turn to change channel.

Nothing stands still...

Nothing stands still…

When you Google ‘computer’, does it bring up images of Mr Babbage standing next to a massive loom-like counting device? It does not.

But consider the way news on TV has changed over the years.

If you made an Evolution of Man style  graphic, for News on the left there’d be a simian Kenneth Kendall, then Angela Rippon dressed in animal skin with a club, and at the end Sophie Raworth standing tall, wearing sensible clothes.

Here’s a spider graphic.  I call it that because it has 8 eyes.  It captures some changes to the way news has been delivered on TV

Changing news


The news was read out by newsreaders at fixed times. It told us what was going on.  The state of our nation. The presenters were patrician figures.


Audience members were encouraged to participate. Question Time and other programmes enabled the public to ask questions directly.  A woman tackled Mrs Thatcher about the Belgrano. User-generated content is increasingly seen on screen, and editors are influenced by what is ‘selling’ on Twitter.


Filling time.  From bulletins to a steady stream – less what’s happened to what’s happening – providing 24 hour news helped increased our capacity for it, like Parkinson’s law. Breakfast TV began in 1983 and the 24-hour news era in 1989 with Sky News.


Filling space.  The TV news used to appear on the big box in the living room. Then in offices and hotels (still largely unmeasured). Then transport, where it really wasn’t wanted. It’s now insinuated itself all over the house thanks to mobiles and tablets – you can watch Jon Snow when having a shit (you not him).

Inspire (or instigate):

News on TV is no longer the end point, but the starting point.  Stories appear here, and viewers can find out more on the net. It’s the way good teaching works – it isn’t about telling you facts, but teaching you curiosity, setting you off with a starter pack of information. Before the net you couldn’t do this, except perhaps ask your Dad who that funny man is. (Son, that’s Ted Heath. He’s the Prime Minister).


Many viewers who don’t bother with the formal bulletins claim to get as much ‘news’ from 8 Out of 10 Cats, Gogglebox, Russell Howard’s Good News and HIGNFY than the actual news. News stories can be told through drama or jokes. This is especially important for (younger) viewers in their I don’t care and you can’t make me phase. Anyway, they’re called news stories for a reason, and good stories can be told in lots of ways.


Trusted news services aren’t just there to tell you what has happened – that’s a commodity these days – but to make sense of it. To provide a new angle. It’s what the TV does well (and the internet can complicate) – making it real. Showing what really matters for people who don’t have the energy or interest to look it all up themselves, and balancing the shrillness of other news sources.


Voting turnout dropped below 60% in the 2001 election, so on September 7th the BBC announced that its most brilliant young news executive would review its output from concern that TV coverage of politics was turning viewers off.  Voting has climbed ever since, so either she fixed the problem, or what happened 4 days after the announcement helped to invigorate the genre.  But clearly more work is needed here: more voices, more investment, more investigations..

Losing three Is…

So TV news has changed.

But, interestingly, for all that, for many viewers, the fixed bulletin (the 1, 6, 10…) is how most get their news on TV. The BBC’s 6pm news managed 5 million viewers most nights in December while its news channel averaged only 3 million across 24-hours (and 8 million in a week).  So you wonder if, as Richard Sambrook’s been saying, the 24 hour channel, having created an addiction among viewers for news updates all day and night, has been superseded by the internet in a way that the evening bulletin has not.

The style of news bulletins and the speed of stories they cover has been transformed, but just as cinemas dropped Pathe news and stuck to they were best at, the news on TV has dropped some of its less important elements:

We don’t need TV news to infill, except on special occasions,

or to infiltrate.  That’s better handled by the net.

And the scope for involving the audience is a little thin on TV, unless you really like speak your brains vox pops.  Again, the net is the place for members of the public to get stuck in.

Inform, inspire, innovate, interpret and invigorate – these are quite hard enough as it is.  But it often succeeds and so for most people, the news on TV remains a collective act of civic duty, and






You’ll be amazed by the way these number shapes rule our lives…

Numeric Topological determinism: A checklist for schedulers

This website is called Viewing247 for a reason.  We can watch what we want when we want, and often do, but TV’s strength lies in it being entrained to suit all 24 hours of our day.

You know what else is built on 24?  The advent calendar.  But instead of ending on Christmas Day, the joy of daily rhythms is that as the last box is opened each night, another set of 24 magical hourly boxes are ready to open again.

And it keeps repeating.

Until you die.

I have made an exciting discovery. When TV viewing is highest, viewers like to watch programmes that fit the shape of the hour – of the number. I’ve written about this before, but here’s the more simple guide.


6The number 6 is a circle with a line leading off.

At 6, the circle represents the way the news gathers us together – we watch as an act of civic duty to express our need to belong to a group.  Which is why the BBC – the representation of collective Britishness – does so well.  But the news isn’t the end point, and the line leading away represents how we are left, if we want, to carry on talking, thinking, exploring what we’ve heard.

7The number 7 is like a hinged mirror at an hour when we want our world reflected back, at an angle.  We’ve done the news about the great and the not so good, and now we want stories about people we recognise and feel we know.  It’s like looking at multiple images of ourself.  That’s why The One Show and soap operas work so well.


8Take us on a journey… but not too far.  At 8 we like programmes that transport us for a while, but drop us off where we started. Easy dramas, undemanding documentaries, simple diversions into cooking, gardening or travel. It’s gently aspirational, but without letting us feel bad.

The two circles on top of each other illustrates the problem.  If this is a journey, it’s a car carrying disparate groups all asking ‘Are we there yet?’


99pm.  The main evening televisual event.  If this is all peak-time, 9 is the Ben Nevis. The biggest programmes and the most settled crowd. The tail of the 9 is like a queue outside a venue, leading to the gathered crowd in the circle.

A 9 is, as sniggering schoolboys have long enjoyed, the upside-downy naughty partner for the 6.  As the cryptic clue revealed, ‘sixty-nine’ is sexy, innit.  So if 6pm was a country expressing its social glue, 9pm is the same crowd, settling down together for some cultural escape.


10Ten is interesting, is it not.  The two digits could reflect the household dynamics in which one person (the ‘1’) continues to watch TV, seated next to a bottom-shaped divot (0) left by their absent partner. But it’s a little early in the evening for that.

More pertinently, if the 1 suggests individuality and 0 the collective, 10 shows the uneasy marriage between our wish to run up the dial in search of something, and the zero reflects the scheduling of news and the broadcasters’ appeal to the collective.  Please come and watch, we’ll sew things up nicely so you feel cosy and tucked-in and that.

Well, OK, we might reply, but we like to assert our individuality too.


11 11 bEleven is a quirky number for a quirky hour.  In a happy marriage you’d be watching together side by side.  But there’s a problem. Here’s a (still) large audience ready to align itself with TV, but let down by inconsistent content. One research project found viewers genuinely disappointed that broadcasters ignored their needs at this hour.  But it goes both ways.  If so many people are awake, why do so few turn up if you put on something decent?  Because viewers are restless and exploring, listlessly searching for stimulation.

The 11 is a peculiar two-fingered rejection by the public of the programmes that are scheduled, and of the broadcasters in not putting much on.


12 12Twelve. One partner remains watching, while the other has curled up.

For some this happens disastrously early. A couple that separates each night at 10 might as well explore separate bedrooms while they’re at it. Or while they’re not at it, more likely.

12 is good though. You watch something… I’ll just fall asleep, facing you (222zzz).  Nostalgia works at this time.  It’s a moment for watching TV on your own, but in tune with your younger self.  A Top of the Pops from when you were small. A repeat of something you’ve seen. It’s the hinge that closes one day and starts another.


1It’s 1am and you are bingeing on an American series that you think defines you?

On a Tuesday?

Seriously, go to bed.  You’re on your own, everyone’s asleep and no-one cares.






If man is five, then the devil is six, and God is seven











An English person’s home…

Researchers in glass houses

thornberry tweetIt’s nearly two weeks since the Rochester and Strood by-election and I have now stopped shaking long enough to collect some thoughts.

The final day was marked by the extraordinary events after visiting shadow minister Emily Thornberry tweeted the image on the right with the caption ‘Image from #Rochester’

The same day, she was fired by Ed Miliband who was by all accounts as angry as he had ever been.

And a large proportion of the country took leave of their senses.  The newspapers and broadcasters pronounced Thornberry guilty of snobbishness, and a week later the households on Gogglebox agreed that she had been sneering at poor people.  This seems to have become the settled view.

I can’t have been the only market researcher bewildered by the entire episode.

Because what Thornberry seemed to be guilty of was what we all do as part of our job: we look for people, symbols and quotes that encapsulate a situation and bring it to life. Far from sneering at the house in question, she was summing up a by-election which centred on England reclaiming control of its borders from Europe. The flag and van typified this feverish attitude.

As it happens she correctly identified a householder that wasn’t planning to vote Labour in a constituency which (redrawn) had been Labour until 2010, and where they were about to come a poor third.

That’s all it was.

How did we get to the point where succinctly summarising the local mood with a pertinent image gets you fired?

If there was any snobbishness I can’t detect it, but perhaps that’s because the following would be normal for market researchers covering Dan and his be-flagged house:

An attitudinal segmentation or geographic clustering exercise would label this corner of Rochester Flags and Vans, or Little Englander.

A YouGov Profiler might illustrate White Van Man with a tattooed skin-head walking a pitbull.

If Dan wasn’t in social grades ABC1 or under 35, Channel 4 might fret that if he watched E4 he would spoil the upmarket and/or youthful profile which they proudly promote.

If Dan had been over 55 and C2 or D social class, he’d be regarded as virtually worthless in most media plans, and excluded from almost all qualitative research.

If Dan wasn’t online very often, he’d be dubbed a social media laggard, or Couch Potato.

A focus group recruiter would rule him out if he sounded inarticulate in the screening process (I’m not suggesting that he would. But if).

All of these, it seems, would be sackable offences for any modern politician assessed as not displaying sufficient respect. We may not like pigeon-holing, but it happens all the time.

Fixed Rig?  Or Honest View

My favourites, the Siddiquis. But even they went with popular opinion on that tweet

My favourites, the Siddiquis. But even they went with popular opinion on that tweet

Over sensitivity to what normal people say is a problem for TV programmes which aim to capture humans being human.  Fixed rig cameras have produced some of the best programmes on TV – from Educating Yorkshire to 24 Hours in A&E – but if Thornberry can get fired and pilloried for such an innocuous tweet, why would anyone on Gogglebox risk being labelled a snob by defending her?  Or saying anything else likely to offend the easily offended.

While Rochester’s most famous resident likes to festoon his property with his patriotism, most of us are more discreet – saving our beliefs for the sofa or dinner table. It’s hard enough to tease out these attitudes in a controlled research environment – what hope is there for people appearing on TV, constantly being evaluated on social media?

I’ve watched almost every minute of Gogglebox, but if the families censor their responses, how honest is it?  The same worry now attaches to all fixed-rig programmes – they show reality, but we’ll stamp on anyone who transgresses the things on our list.

One research company, Hope and Anchor has pioneered a form of qualitative research which, through filmed re-enactments, works with consumers’ self-consciousness, recognising that many of our choices aren’t made in a bubble but based on an acute sense of how others will judge us.  But this is nuanced and subtle work, unsuited to shrill environments.

So if we can’t trust people who speak in public on social media, or people on camera, how can we understand what real people think?

By encouraging them to be honest in an environment in which they are safe, by listening very carefully, (ignoring misleading post-rationalisations, of COURSE) and by recognising where our own prejudices are slipping in.




Do market researchers speak a language in which UKIP demagoguery rings false?





Curious incidents

A mystery solved.  Two mysteries.


Here’s a favourite chart.  The blue columns show how people with Sky+ responded when they were asked how much of their TV viewing is time-shifted, that is, viewed as video on demand (VOD) catch-up via Sky+ or iPlayer. 20% said that all or virtually all of their viewing is time-shifted. Their average estimate is around 55-60%.

The red column gives the actual amount that is time-shifted – averaging just under 17%.  Virtually no-one with a television watches more than 80% of their viewing on demand.  That 17% among people with Sky+/ Tivo has barely shifted in the past 10 years.  And most of it is merely viewing that’s been postponed by a few hours.

People generally are hopeless at describing their own behaviour.

But there are two mysteries here.

1. Why do people routinely get estimates of their own TV viewing so wrong?

2. Why isn’t the time-shifted viewing far higher?

Fortunately both mysteries can be solved by applying the detective skills that Sherlock Holmes used in the 1892 story Silver Blaze.  We might call this, the Curious Incident(s) of the VOD in the Night Time, after the phrase that was first used in the book (and which Mark Haddon borrowed).

Slide4So who killed the man, and stole the horse? Holmes makes a pertinent point to the local officer.

Slide5Holmes focuses on the behaviour of the guard dog.  He had one job, to bark at strangers, so his silence suggested that no stranger was present.


When it comes to TV viewing, we are aware of the special TV programmes that we feel define us – the ones that we make a point to watch either when they are scheduled, or can be arsed to catch-up on, if missed.

These are often the programmes we watch on demand. We like these programmes enough to let them disrupt our lives, and like a dog spotting an intruder, when we watch one we start barking to let everyone know:

Game of Thrones… woof.   Breaking Bad… ruff.  24 Hours in A&E… bow wow.

The ApprenticeGrrr.

Perhaps you know the riddle: How do you know if someone doesn’t own a television?  If they don’t they’ll always tell you.

People who don’t own a TV binge on their absence (believing that this defines them), and howl so much about it that someone needs to take them to the nearest pound in one of those special trucks, or give them a bloody TV.

So if that explains why we over-estimate the disruptive viewing it doesn’t explain why don’t we watch the programmes that make us bark more often?

That’s because the things we think define us don’t really define our regular behaviour, and it would be exhausting if they did.  How much of Sherlock Holmes life did he actually spend solving crimes?  Would you watch Sherlock every night?  Many of us like the odd binge, but it’s not really natural is it?  TV is integrated into our lives with a naturalness that it is often barely worthy of mention or conscious thought*.

You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to work this out, you can do this yourself.

Just try restricting your TV viewing so you can’t watch any live TV.  Then see how long it takes before you start growling.






For more on all this, take a look at the Screenlife: TV in Demand study on the Thinkbox website.  The above is an adaptation of part of a presentation given to the MRG conference in December 2013.

* If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s akin to how we always thought we made decisions before behavioural science showed that most decisions are automatic, habitual and bypassing rationality.

PS: This tendency to bark about on demand things isn’t just about TV: I listen to a lot of radio, but I’ve mentioned the Serial podcasts far more often, because they feel like the idealised me that I like to project (did you see how I shoe-horned it in there?  That’s one of the tragic symptoms).







Top of a Massive Hill

A brutal ocean of failure

Nice shirt, but how does he break into television?

Nice shirt, but how does he break into television?

I once had aspirations to write a drama for TV, bought Final Draft and got started. And then realised I was being stupid.

If I really wanted to write shouldn’t I be writing for the local theatre company?  Or just for the pleasure of writing?  Or wouldn’t I enter writing competitions, or perhaps start a book and take it from there?  I mean, this person did it.  And so did this one (and we share genes and everything).


So that’s why it never happened.

Most performers start small and work up.  I remember Robert Webb giving out flyers in Edinburgh in the early noughties for early Mitchell and Webb productions – they didn’t swan into TV success but served a proper apprenticeship.  It’s a market that sorts out the special people from everyone else.

It’s brutal.

And not just in TV.   In the last few months I’ve enjoyed the Canadian singer Haley Bonar at the Lexington, the Keston Cobblers Club at Dingwalls, and Australian singer Washington in a church near King’s Cross.   Three brilliant performers, performing to small audiences for around ten notes each despite years of producing wonderful music and busting their guts.

It’s good to hear music in small venues, but the feet of the children of musicians need to be shod.

And there’s nothing particular about the music industry or TV. Look at films.  A fraction of planned films get made, a fraction of these get released in cinemas, and most of these are met by a chorus of indifference.  Did you see God Help the Girl?  Neither did I.

The most successful people – musicians, comedians, writers are standing on a mountain of people with as much talent, or as much luck, or as much stamina as they do, but not all three.

And they are standing on another pile of people who have none of those things, but may be in the queue for X Factor auditions.  Or writing blogs.


Successes are a golden pea of success atop a mattress of failure.  As Clay Shirky once said about something else, a tiny archipelago of success in an ocean of failure.

Television: It doesn’t do small or cheap

Television has always been different.  You can’t get started at the bottom.  To create TV with any success you’ve always needed to pass three thresholds:

Programmes can’t be made without a chunk of money

They won’t get distribution without a channel.

And they won’t be viewed if they’re no good.

That’s the minimum.  Even a decent programme can struggle.

Until channel numbers expanded, the pool of people creating TV programmes was minute. Imagine the talent in the 1980s that never got a break. You’ve heard of the Long Tail: there was a time when this didn’t exist on TV. But it still feels impenetrable, in a way that must be upsetting to the ambitious.

Fed up with Coldplay? You write some songs, pick up a guitar and hire a venue.

Narked by the success of Michael McIntyre?  You write some jokes and brave an open mic spot.

Talent, tick.  Spontaneity, tick.  Needed, one barn

Talent, tick.
Spontaneity, tick.
Needed, one barn

Jealous of the National Theatre?  You put on a show, right now, here, in the barn.

Actually, these aren’t bad approaches for TV too, if you’re good.  So how does the ambitious creative gun-slinger respond to the brutal mathematics of TV and its dominance of popular culture?  One option is to work through the 5 stages we go through in a break-up.

DenialTV isn’t all that anyway.  I don’t watch and neither do my friends/ children.

AngerI’ve chucked out my TV.  It’s all shit and mass produced rubbish an’ that.

There are three more, but let’s draw a veil over depression, guilt, and acceptance because they’re upsetting.

Or, like the kids in Fame, they knuckle down, hone their skills and hope for a break.  Which is why it is so important that talented people from ethnic minorities, or poor people who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship, or older people, don’t feel shut out of the business and it becomes a proper meritocracy.

Commissioners are desperate for quality programmes at lower prices, as audiences fragment and uncertain finances lower their budgets. But still, quality TV costs money.

But not quality content. You can make that for nothing.  So the rise of internet stars is an obvious boon to the industry, because it democratises the process, opening up new voices.  I may resent the monopoly dominance of YouTube, or the claims that UGC or online video will put TV out of business.  But these reservations aside, it’s a great thing. Anyone really can create something and upload it.  Suddenly the open meritocracy that TV has always needed is available.

Let the market decide what is good.

But there’s a caveat, and a problem

The Caveat

The mistake people make is to imagine that the YouTube vloggers and other content is the same as television.  The singers I mentioned earlier wouldn’t work at Wembley Stadium or the O2.  Not without a totally different show, restyled to fit the venue.  It’s a different performance and a different set of skills.  A YouTube vlogger is about creating an intimate relationship, and an illusion of it being one on one.  It wouldn’t attract a critical mass at a particular moment in the way that TV requires.

Online is a great place to discover talent and nurture skills, but the content is an uneasy fit with anything requiring an appointment to view, or for watching together.

The Problem

We might worry about the also-rans from the X Factor, doomed to a life of might-have-beens.  The market is cruel, but quick, if they’re lucky. Pity the talented musician unable to give up a micro-career and cast adrift in their 30s.

And TV might not have been democratic, but it didn’t sustain people in a fantasy.  But now look. How many people, tempted by the possibility of being on TV, will waste their lives meandering around the lower reaches of video waiting for that break that doesn’t come, sustained by views, likes and tweets that won’t pay the bills.

Will Self nailed it – indulging talentless hipsters, (or even somewhat-talented people who don’t aspire to hipster-status) may not be doing them any favours, and will simply encourage others.

the web has massively enlarged the numbers who style themselves as “artistic”, as well as increased the duration of their futile aspiration. In the kidult dickhead milieu, it’s now quite possible to encounter fortysomethings with weird facial hair, wearing shorts and still resolutely believing that their career is about to take off.

And in a way I suppose they’re right, because the totalising capability of dickheads + web = an assumed equivalence between all remotely creative forms of endeavour.

Will Self: he is so very right

Will Self: he is so very right

When we look at the success of a generation of vloggers, attracting significant audiences without any of the costs or distribution issues for TV, it might seem like a brand new model.  But the online market will be just as brutal as the music one  – a tiny isthmus of success, in a foaming ocean of failure.







Haley Bonar: Silver Zephyrs.  (Eat For Free is even better)

The Kestons…

Skewing us into tiny pieces

A matter of discretion

And so our tour of the ologies moves from entomology to etymology… come on those at the back, leave the maggots behind we are onto words.

Discrete and DiscreetOne means to separate into distinct groups, and the other is to be careful so as to avoid embarrassment, or to be private.  You can tell which is which because discrete has the two E’s separated by a T (an online image search produces obscure graphs).  Discreet looks like sheet: something which covers and hides, (people saying Shhh, and feminine products).

Mmm, discete uniform distribution.  Niiiice

Mmm, discrete uniform distribution. Niiiice

Not a maggot, no. A discreet ear-piece

Not another maggot, no. A discreet ear-piece

We often talk about discrete groups and behaviours because such divisions are real and can be helpful.

The YouGov Profiler

I mean come ON.   Look at this absolute fucker.

YouGov pen portrait: I mean come ON.
An extra from Dad’s Army?

Anyway, I thought about all this when I saw everyone talking about the Yougov profiler app.  Designed to help marketers develop media plans, here it is, have a go.

Now the good people at Yougov are commendably clear about how it works:

This app does not show the *typical* fan or customer. If it did, most groups would look very similar, and you wouldn’t learn a lot about the specifics of a particular thing


It shows what is *particularly true* about a group. We compare the group to their natural ‘comparison set’ (for example, fans of Downton Abbey compared to anyone who has rated any TV shows) … if something is only true of 1% of the overall population, but is true of 6% of our target group, it might score very highly (and shows you something interesting and true about that group). But it doesn’t mean that it is true of all of them!

(So we see that Man City fans skew towards older women and people who like Myleene Klass are (or were) left-wingers in the North East).

But if groups are genuinely similar, isn’t working with the similarities more valuable than focusing on marginal differences?   Is the 6% particularity more ‘true’ about a population than what it shares with other groups?  It may be slightly less fun than clustering and it’s easier to ignore most of your potential market in favour of your inner core market, but recognising the breadth of your consumers widens your ambitions.

For users of the YouGov app, everything that matters is discrete, while the truth is discreet…

One hates to be churlish about a lovely looking bit of fun from a respected research company.  But this is painfully misleading.

Focussing on what is ‘particularly true’ can be disastrous in TV, which is characterised by broad audiences, watching together. Audiences are rarely discrete, and we should be discreet about such differences that do exist, to avoid the embarrassing marketing clangers caused by over-targeting on ‘fans‘.

And isolating us according to what sets us apart is borderline fascist:

First they came for the hamster owners, and did not speak to me

because I am not a young woman who feels dizzy

Then they came for the fans of First Aid Kit, and did not speak to me

because I am not a young lawyer in Wales

Then they came for the Media Professionals and did not speak to me

because I do not watch only 1-5 hours of TV each week.

Then they came for the people who shop at Lidl, and did not speak to me

because I look nothing like this.

Then they came for me, and missed the fact that I’m

a hamster-owning, Lidl shopping, fan of First Aid Kit working in media.



The topic of pigeon-holing, and writing off most of your target market is echoed in the words to this beautiful song.  Imagine it’s sung by a (potential) consumer for your product, but who falls outside the particularity of your target, so you ignore them.

I could’ve been so many things
But it would never be enough for you
I was the one you counted on
But I was never the one for you
Now I know
I lost you a long time ago











A teeming body of work

A corpse makes a good lunch

Blowfly maggot: a useful market to help us understand what happens to a body

Blowfly maggot: a useful marker to help us understand what happens to a body


On Radio 4 this week, crime novelist Val McDirmid has read extracts from her recent book, Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.

Forensic entomology is the use of insect biology in the solution of a crime.

It’s grimly fascinating.

Val describes the first recorded use of the technique 800 years ago, to identify a killer who stabbed a man to death in a Chinese village.  The coroner asked all the villagers to gather together with their sickles.  A fly landed on the sickle of the local money-lender. Then another, and another.  And he confessed.  Despite his effort to clean the blade, the flies had been attracted by microscopic traces of blood.

Modern forensic scientists understand the way a body changes when it dies.  The rigor mortis and loss of temperature are valuable clues for the first day or two, but when the body is solidly cold, you need the skills of an entomologist, who use their knowledge of the life-cycles of insects within the corpse to understand when death took place.  Blow flies are important – they only arrive when an organism dies and with certain adjustments based on the temperature, the maggots and pupae provide reliable markers (they grow more quickly if it’s warm).

La petite mort

The French idiom for orgasm, ‘the little death’, usefully captures the pleasurable release when a programme is broadcast but also the sense of something been spent.

When the audience research team works we’re not really researching the programme.  And you can see why, like bodies, TV programmes are complex systems in which we can describe a few elements – the genre, cast, and main elements are akin to the species, age and anatomical framework.  But it can’t easily capture its essence.

It’s the organisms around it that concern us – who they are, when they came and went and so on. What matters is the programme’s influence on others, not itself, per se.

And a TV programme is a living organism surrounded by life.  When alive it is animated, making things happen around it.  It will sustain parasites, some of which live at its expense, and some which co-operate to mutual benefit (such as advertising, without which it might not exist).

The cyamus boopis, a parasitic whale louse

The cyamus boopis, a parasitic whale louse

Observing the way Twitter has attached itself to TV, at times for mutual promotion, and at others to divert revenue away, I am put in mind of the cyamus boopis. This whale louse clings to the genital region of humpback whales.  The analogy isn’t perfect (TV isn’t harpooned by the Japanese), but the relative size between the whale and the louse is a reasonable approximation of the commercial impact of TV and its parasitic host.

Living organisms interact with their peers and duplicate themselves through breeding. The processes of the food chain and evolution means that they can improve the stock of other organisms by the process of killing the lower quality or less adapted quarry.

Just like TV programmes.

Live = alive

Organisms are at their best when they are alive, are they not.

When we consider the enduring preference of viewers to watch programmes when are consumed when broadcast, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s the sense of liveness that they value. They may not be performed live, but the simultaneous release makes them live (short i) because of their broad impact.  We’re all enjoying a simultaneous petite mort.

After they have been released, they don’t disappear.  They attract interest still, and the blow flies and others move in.  Let not our squeamishness about blow flies make us unkind about an impressive creature which can smell a dead animal a mile away, and entrusts its precious eggs to the decaying meat.  And by feeding and hosting flies, dead creatures re-enter the food chain in complex ways (or more direct.  Perhaps you’ve heard of that old lady who swallowed a fly).


A blow fly (not actual size)

A blow fly (not actual size)

And since we can’t always research the actual organism, we get clues about what happened when it lived by examining the processes by the blow flies.  We read reviews, we gauge the level of social comment, we can look at the audience that turns up afterwards.

And like a dead animal that sustains a minor ecosystem living in and around its body, for some TV programmes, it’s the afterlife that really sustains it.




TV is toast

Marmitey goodness

Full toast

And so we turn our attention to personalisation, food and making something look bigger by helping it work harder…

Why do we prefer toast that has been cut into triangles?

My children like toast that way, and like all the best truths, they are best illustrated with an anecdote about an atypical family.  If I had given them the slice above (rather than eating it myself), they also would have favoured the bottom half to the top half – they like Marmite, but only a little.

The answer to our preference for triangles, it seems is that we have an aversion to crusts and a triangle reduces the proportion of crusty edges to non-crusted ones.  If you don’t cut or fold the slice you have to go through the crust to get to the bit you want.

If you cut it horizontally then approximately a 3rd of the total edge is non-crust.  If you cut it diagonally the non-crusty part is the longest edge, about a third longer than a horizontal edge.

Mmm... Look at the marmitey hypotenuse.

Mmm…an uncrusted marmitey hypotenuse

Look, the crust is only one of the three sides!

Look, the crust is only one side (albeit the long one)

Witchcraft? The crusty side is now one of the shorter edges

Witchcraft? The crusty side is now a short edge

Mind-blown! Half have no crust at all (the good ones)

Mind-blown! Half have no crust at all


If you carry on cutting, the % of crust falls further. Eventually half the triangles have no side at all with any crust.

But it’s not just about crust

1. It looks bigger when you cut it all up

2. The pieces start to be different.  Some have more marmite than others.  Some have virtually none.


What has all this to do with television?

Personalisation is championed as a way to target viewers more effectively: on demand precision targeting compared with supposed broadcast wastage. Deliver programmes on an a la carte basis, it argues, means viewers choose what they want and can be targeted with the right messaging about programmes that fit their tastes.

In this analogy, broadcast television was the uncut piece – or the one cut in half horizontally – whereas video on demand and other OTT offers are like the triangles.  Personalisation identifies our open, uncrusty side and works with it.  With ‘clustered’ distribution of Marmite, it also lets the toast eaters who like a lot of Marmite, or love a little, get the toast they prefer.

Which is great.

Although it’s worth pointing out that which ever way you cut it, it’s the same toast and and the same amount of Marmite.

And dividing it may reduce the sense of cohesion – how they fit together.

It risks inefficiency too – the time and effort taken to cut it up.  My preference is the happy balance between scale and design offered by the quartered pieces – some variation in taste, a happy surprise or two, and I can eat them in the order I want, giving me a sense of control.  But when you get to 16 pieces and beyond, you’re turning delicious lovely toast into something far less attractive.



Next time: Why set top boxes are like soldiers.


PS. Why is TV NOT like marmite?  Everyone loves television.

Some people can be so cruel.











A Trompe L’oeil: PCs and phones for TV…

Tethered to a wall?

Small, delicate, and unable to take off

Small, delicate, and unable to take off

I’ve just finished reading The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s epic novel, which turns on the disappearance of a small painting by the Dutch 17th century painter, Fabritius.  It’s a modest image of a small bird, but it carries a lot of weight, and fascinates several of the book’s characters.

The picture is tinged with sadness – should a pretty bird be imprisoned to a wall?  You can see the chain from its leg to the perch.  It can sing, but can’t move.  Tartt is making an analogy between the bird and the way we live.

So let’s compare the tethering of the bird with something important in our lives, how we watch TV programmes.

Is the goldfinch like a TV screen, attached to a wall and unable to move? 

Or is it like a mobile phone, small and powerful, but being asked to do something for which it was not designed?

In the world of television we hear about a transformed and complex world.  But sometimes a simple portrait is what you need.

I don’t know who ‘painted’ the graphs below, but I like them.  When will an art gallery host an exhibition of media consumption graphs: here, a Malevich inspired Pie chart rendered in black. There a two-by two matrix, after Mondrian...  The ones below have unfashionable stacked bars that David McCandless or Jon Moon would hate, but are packed with meaning.  Behind each number, millions of hours of people sitting together or alone, being entertained, thrilled, informed and connected to each other by TV programmes.

2013-4, monthly requests for BBC programmes via iPlayer

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 17.19.47

2012-3,monthly requests for BBC programmes via iPlayer

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 17.24.46

What messages can one take?

First, the bonfire of the computers

The computer is tanking as a device to watch TV. From August 2012 to 2014 the number of BBC programmes requested on computers fell from 81 million to 40 million and from 54% of the total to just 22% of views.  22%… that awkward in-betweeny number – smaller than a quarter, bigger than a fifth… either way, it’s not a lot. But how often do we hear about a collapse in computers or trendy people telling us that they’ve ‘cut the mouse’?

August isn’t a typical month for computers because of holidays, but it points to the future – in August 2013 it suddenly dipped to 33% of the total, and never went above it again.

It’s not simply people swapping the computer for their phone.  That 41 million drop in views on computers is larger than the total number of programmes viewed on phones.

Is it the year of Mobile? Is it?

‘Scuse my French, but is it ferck.

Or, it might be.  But not for watching TV programmes.  For fiddling with while watching TV? Perhaps. It’s a supporting device for a TV screen, not an alternative to it.

Two thirds of the 50 million adults in the country has a smart-phone – so that’s … rounding a little… 34 million people.  And 34 million programmes were requested on a mobile.  So each month the typical person … you can do the maths.

No, I’ll do it.  One BBC programme. In the whole of August.

It’s growing, but is not a significant number.  Using a phone to watch TV programmes is like tethering a goldfinch to a wall and asking it to be a bird. It can do it, but not very well.

We’ve seen this category error before – asking a television to be a communications device was like throwing it out of the window and asking it to fly.

It’s barely the year of tablet

Tablet use for programmes is more interesting – growing faster despite lower penetration. For watching programmes, tablets are the most like 2nd TV sets – defined by their screen rather than broader functionality. Manufacturers should leap in with simple £30 screens you can prop up in the house, or carry around.

‘Evolution, not revolution’ is a desperate cliché , but this barely qualifies as evolution.  Given that all the viewing in these graphs amounts to only 2-3% of total viewing to BBC programmes, is 10% annual growth really an evolution, given the spread of the devices?  At this rate, most of us will be dead before they represent a critical mass of viewing.

They are widening viewing (and Thinkbox’s Screenlife TV Advertising Everywhere is an excellent analysis), but at the margins. Young people’s obsessive mobile use, their love of visuals-light content on Youtube and elsewhere, their individualism and better eye-sight means that they will tolerate it. But despite heavy-handed efforts to encourage people online, something is clearly holding people back.

It’s probably this: TV viewing is generally either an immersive experience helping us escape or unwind, OR it’s a social experience, where we watch together or connect with others. A mobile phone cannot be properly immersive for aesthetic reasons, and while it is obviously social, it doesn’t connect you with the people you are with. If anything it drives you apart.

TV programmes on phones: A trompe l’oeil

One charm of the Fabritius’s Goldfinch is its ambition as a trompe l’oeil: to fool our eyes that a bird is really there.  So, we needn’t torture a little bird if we hang a picture of one.  But as the author says, there is symbolism here, and transubstantiation, where the paint is not only paint, but an actual bird:

It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true’    The Goldfinch p859

Televisions aren’t imprisoned on a wall, or on a fixed stand.  On the contrary, it’s the most natural place for them.  Computers aren’t a good way to watch TV programmes and the catastrophic decline seen in the tables illustrates this.

And neither are phones because they are too small.  Too flighty.  Asking us to use them for TV programmes is like chaining them to the wall and sitting really close. It doesn’t fool the eye, and can’t touch the heart.

Taking advantage when you’re distracted

One word for that, Magic Arts

Screen shot 2014-11-04 at 10.04.49

James Randi: Knows about the value of distraction

The best love stories start with indifference. You meet in the canteen and over the months, without trying too hard, a colleague becomes your friend, and then you fall for them.

It’s When Harry Met Sally, or Emma, or Scrotal Recall.

Whereas on a blind date or in a pick-up bar being chatted up, you’re on your guard.  That’s fine if you’re looking to buy, or sell (… I don’t really mean sell), but …it’s hard to open up your feelings in these circumstances.

The recent documentary on BBC4 about James Randi illustrated the point.

This former magician and escapologist has spent 30 years successfully exposing charismatic faith-healers and mental spoon-benders. But they’re as popular as ever and despite Randi’s devotion to his task – he is now 86 but looks 120 – the public seems to prefer the magic of belief to the grimness of truth.

One unexpected feature of the programme: chippily self-confident on TV, Randi’s vulnerabilities were revealed when his partner was threatened with deportation. He said of Randi, ‘People don’t know how much he cares when he sees someone in distress.. he will do what is necessary to save somebody’.

The programme needed an emotional core to work, and wove it in subtly.  Randi’s tool may be rationality but the most successful magicians rely on distraction. If an audience’s emotions are engaged – in a faith healing session or darkened room with a psychic – they are doubly vulnerable to the power of suggestion.

This also explains how TV works.  But some people don’t seem to understand it.

Missing the point

Perhaps you read this recently: How Mobile Video Can Drive the Future of Brand Marketing

Google and Ipsos announced that:

..the small screen has the potential to drive big impact…

Video watching on TV was the sole activity just 28% of the time…  The rest of the time, participants were involved with another activity—such as eating, using a computer, chatting to a friend or cooking—as they were watching TV. Alternatively, video watching was the sole activity for 53% of mobile video sessions.

People watching digital video outside the home are also 1.8x more likely than average to be meaningfully engaged because they are likely to be watching video for active purposes, such as looking for information or exploring a passion.

So if someone is focused on a task, they’ll absorb more.

Well, it’s a point of view, but there are a several problems.

1. Media consumption and distraction is not easy to measure properly (though some people have succeeded), but these are big topics: asking people about attention levels doesn’t cut it;

2. So, looking for information or exploring a passion is an ‘active purpose’. But we watch TV to indulge ourself, connect with others or escape…  are these less active or purposeful than learning make-up tips or watching gameplay clips?

3. With ‘meaningfully engaged’ the authors equate attention level with advertising effectiveness.  But we’ve known for years, notably from Robert Heath’s work, that we process video and sound such that when we are switched off (‘eating’..) our brain can be MORE receptive.  There’s more here. Or you can buy Heath’s book here.

Being open-minded

Les Binet and Peter Field’s The Long and the Short Of It analysis for the IPA of effective advertising campaigns looked into the topic:

In contrast to widely held beliefs, [Heath] argues that there is a benefit to low attention levels amongst viewers of a commercial: “the emotive content itself, all of which will be processed (because emotive processing happens automatically and instantaneously and without any attention being paid), will likewise enter our consciousness without any challenge (i.e. counter-argument).

In effect, the role of creativity, far from making us more alert and more attentive, renders us less attentive and more vulnerable.” Thus he argues that TV’s ability to facilitate low attention processing (because viewers are in a relaxed passive mode) results in more effective seeding of emotive associations with brands than media such as print or websites (where viewers are required to focus and pay attention).

As Robert Heath says, more brieflyThis fixation with getting high attention is a bit of a waste of time.

Byron Sharp recently pointed out that:

In a lot of the cases we reach someone, but we don’t reach their brain. People are goal directed when they are on Facebook.  They are looking at the stuff their friends are putting up.  They’re not looking at advertising, so there is a lot of screening out. 

How much that lowers the quality of the exposure is a very important question.

Perhaps adverts watched on mobile phones really are more effective.  But you can’t tell from the Google/Ipsos study. (Worse, their Range Rover case study implies that car buyers come to Google at the start of the buying process, and ignores the 20 years Range Rover has invested in television and elsewhere to build mental availability with purchasers).

The whole area is crying out for more investment.  If a company with the resources of Google won’t develop serious research into how types of attention can affect the effectiveness of campaigns, then we are entitled to reject their study the way we’d reject Uri Geller’s claims of psychic influence on spoons.

Being open, ourselves

And we shouldn’t only point the finger at Google.  TV researchers deploy dial-testing where respondents report their second by second satisfaction levels during a drama or comedy.  Won’t the self-conscious task kill off the natural response? If no-one watches programmes that way, why research viewing like this?

Finally, if you’ve been contemplating this and have a research colleague you’ve always got on with but never thought of that way but now you mention it, there is something about them and they’re single… and.. why not see if they’re free for lunch.