Critical Mass Media: Part 1

The Bigdom of Crowds

Have you ever considered that humans are a bit like molecules, and subject to the same physical laws?  I’m here to argue that what works in physics also works in how we watch TV.  I’m extending this to two parts.  Today:  How a critical Mass is created and sustained.


TV viewers

Critical Mass:  It’s one of the great expressions, is it not?  Critical Mass.  They should give a prize to whoever came up with it.  (Oh, actually they have… A Nobel Prize for Thomas Schelling, and he’s still alive.  Or maybe he just popularised it.  ANYWAY).  People think of mass as a bad thing.  Masses… ugh, how common.  But put the word critical in front of it and we’re talking about a mass with power and discretion.

Actually it’s a bit of an odd phrase – for some people it means a semi-spontaneous monthly cycling celebration cum chain-mob, but it is also ‘ the minimum mass of fissile material that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction’.  That’s the dictionary definition.  So we are in the realm here of energy, reaction and whatever fissile means.

A Critical Mass is dynamic too – a little like its neighbour, Tipping Point (but consider how one has a horrible tinny name which creates a toothy grimace, while Critical Mass leaves the lips in a kissable oh’).  It’s about the exercise of influence and change through brute size.

It’s not quite the critical mass I had in mind, but it’s a nice image. Individually weak, collectively strong…

Well with all respect to the nuclear physicists and cycling activists, critical mass is also a great phrase to describe TV audiences when they are big enough, and involved enough, to be able to maintain a state of potency.  James Surowiecki might have made his name by describing the ‘wisdom of crowds’, but I’m less concerned with a crowd’s predictive qualities and pooled intelligence, but the way in which a TV audience might conform to the same laws and effects as a physical mass, and what that might mean.

In Philip Ball’s brilliant Critical Mass, he describes how the type of reactions described in physics also apply to the way we humans live.  For instance the idea that solid blocks are actually composed of molecules jostling around, and the idea that their activity can be speeded up by applying heat.

Sustaining a Critical Mass: The Physics and the TV audience

The way we commonly use the phrase critical mass is about a population being just big enough, and that a critical mass needs to be sustained or it starts to wander off or lose its power.    But Ball describes the three ways to sustain it:

First, for audiences as with molecules, one way is for it to be heated up…charged if you will.   Think about the audiences to news programmes running about and bumping into each other when breaking news happens.  Or viewers to soap operas who tune in to the more potent stories and start texting each other.  Live events, one-off occasions, powerful documentaries – television at its best – sports fans in pubs…  Television is big enough to create its own heat.

1. Great TV attracting a big crowd


The second way to sustain a critical mass relates to its molecular components – how magnetic they are and suchlike.  Well, the same with a TV audience.. how motivated, articulate, connected, and impassioned they are. People really do use television as a tool for social interaction, decision-making, power and pride, all their primary needs.

2. An insulin molecule. One of the good guys. Does a lot of work in the body. Likes to eat cake.

Finally, a critical mass can be sustained by interactions – by molecules combining together.  Can a TV programme mobilise its audience members by harnessing their innate clustering or herding instincts? Well, obviously it can.  But perhaps not by trying in too obvious a way (join in at home! texts running at the bottom of the screen and so on). It has become so much easier for them to interact while watching TV… how can it best encourage them?

3. Magnetic molecules… or an audience sticking together, combining into a force

The Great British Bake Off and Love Your Garden

The Great British Bake Off: smell the molecular activity as the dough rises and stirs you up

Love Your Garden: Birds, bees, pollen and.. where’s my deckchair?

Some TV programmes seem able to punch above their weight because of their content, audience nature, and audience gelling qualities. And others don’t.
Take The Great British Bake Off on BBC2 and Love Your Garden, featuring Alan Titchmarsh, on ITV1.  
I really like Alan Titchmarsh in the garden… a likeable expert communicating helpful information with a light touch and with an underrated ability to write a lyrical voice-over.  Whereas, I’m on a low-carb diet, so baking is currently something of a bete-noir.
They started with similar audiences of around 3 million viewers.  But The Great British Bake Off has seen its audience grow by about a third, and attracts a lot of comment, while Love Your Garden has been more static and feels much quieter.  The audiences are still within the same ballpark, but Bake Off has 15 x as many followers on Twitter and 28 x as many friends on Facebook.   You just sense, somehow, that one is a perfect example of Critical Mass in action, and the other isn’t.
This is hardly surprising in a way – baking is the very essence of critical mass in action – molecules combined, mixed together, heated up and consumed. Gardening is the same thing – with added sex (between flowers and insects), but over a much longer period.  Watching food being prepared and competing stirs the senses, and can even motivate you, while looking at gardens seems more contemplative and personal.  You can imagine people watching The Great British Bake Off and talking about food, and others watching Love Your Garden and thinking about summer.
But it’s also something about BBC 2 versus ITV.  You can imagine that the BBC 2 viewers who watch the programme already know each other, while the ITV viewers don’t.  A baking contest would work perfectly well on either channel, but somehow the mass on BBC2 is slightly more critical.
When ITV rebrands, it needs to add a little yeast to its mix.

Phillip Ball: Critical Mass. We are merely molecules in a big teeming mass, bumping into each other, creating friction and that




Next time: How friction attracts audiences, in news and drama.  Will include a picture of a duck that looks like a rabbit.  And vice versa.


  1. I am becoming addicted to TGBBO on BBC2. And it doesn’t even have the factors that normally are required to keep may attention: man on the run, cars chases, guns, fast paced editing… I think a key ingredient (sorry) – apart from the food porn itself – is the competition element. There is an outcome that drives the narrative and keeps our attention to the end. Already hungry for the next ep.

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