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

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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.