Coping with wide open choice

In a Free For All, fear for all

India. Its name has ‘in’ in it. You’d be surprised how many people forget this

On Tuesday’s episode of Pointless (my favourite daily programme), contestants were asked to name a country whose name contains the word ‘in’.  Fairly straightforward, you’d think.

For those of you unfamiliar with the programme (in which case, why??), it works like this.  The same question is asked to 100 people before the show.  So these 100 people have 100 seconds to name as many countries with ‘in’ in their name as they can.  The best answers for the contestants are the ones that fewest of those 100 people made.  So, among the best answers were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Trinidad and Tobago and Lichtenstein.

All of the eight contestants chose to avoid the most obvious answers, because they would have scored the most points, and it’s the contestants with the most points who are eliminated.  But the most popular answers among the 100 people, and the number choosing them were.

  • China  22
  • Indonesia   27
  • India   41

The most striking thing here is how low the scores are.  59 people, asked to write down all the countries with ‘in’ in the name forgot about India!  When you consider that on the next programme 72% knew that Zippy was a character in Rainbow, and 78% that Great Uncle Bulgaria is a Womble, you can see how low 41% is. Clearly everyone has heard of India, and they all know that India has ‘in’ in it, but they just forgot about it.

What’s this got to do with television?

Humans have a lot to think about, and wonderful though TV is, audiences can’t be expected to remember much about when the programmes are airing. When they are scheduled matters, but audiences can’t remember much beyond a couple of channels.  Given a white sheet of paper, the memory goes blank.

But scheduling helps.  The chronological order, the channel and the time all act as mnemonic devices – memory aids – that help.

You often hear about the end of the TV schedule.  Here’s Armando Iannucci the other day talking about a funny clip he had seen on Youtube

I can watch … whenever I like. This removes the art of the scheduler, since scheduling becomes a personal gift to the viewer, who watches whatever they like. And I think, especially watching how the young view their television, or rather view content on YouTube on their laptop, on their phone, and have this expectation that they can access anything from anywhere in the world, and at any time they want it, I think that this inevitable revolution in viewing habits that people are frightened of is going to come upon us in the next three, four years.

I loved Armando’s speech, but the problem with this idea is that audiences for good stuff would collapse if viewers have to find it for themselves in some sort of free for all and then schedule it in their lives.  His latest Alan Partridge special aired on Sky Atlantic to a modest audience of around 200,000 people.  It would have attracted several times as many viewers on Sky 1 (A Touch of Cloth had 4 times as many) or BBC2 (and it is actually quite shameful that the BBC upset Iannucci to the point where it wasn’t shown on BBC2).  It’s not about distribution issues, Sky Atlantic hasn’t reached critical mass in audiences’ consciousness (and isn’t it meant to show American programmes?).

Putting programmes on a particular channel, at a particular time, giving them a sense of scarcity, synchronising the country to watch them (and talk about them) together, all helps to encourage viewing.  You know how many British films are made, and limp into cinemas briefly before disappearing with their investment?  Nearly all of them (and many don’t even get as far as a cinema release).  Audiences simply can’t be arsed to make the effort to find them.  Television programmes benefit enormously from the nurturing process of the ‘channel’, and the schedule on which they are placed.

Many plants grow taller when they can lean against a structure.

The TV schedule works this way too, ‘training’ programmes and helping them grow

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