Critical Mass Media Part 2

Is it a rabbit or a duck? It’s both! At the same time. The abruptness with which the image oscillates between rabbitness and birditude illustrates a ‘phase transition’. Sudden change…

Friction: Heat from things rubbing against each other

So according to the last post, audience members are like molecules.  Viewers are subject to the same natural physical laws as atomic particles: they can be warmed up by great content, and if they are the right type of people, and can stick together, they can sustain and grow themselves.
So this seems to be happening with The Great British Bake Off, but may not be so obvious with Love Your GardenDoctor Who seems to have a similarly excitable, connected audience base, so does Sherlock, and HomelandEastenders seems to attract more comment than Coronation Street (though the gap online has narrowed).
But what about the world in which audiences operate?  It’s not a static situation, so how does TV use change to attract viewing?

Philip Ball didn’t write about TV audiences in his book Critical Mass, but his notion of a human world governed by physical laws seems very relevant – most of what follows is inspired by his analysis.  A lot of it relates to imbalance, friction and the corrective movements within a system.

The way in which Friction is manifest in TV audiences can be looked at three ways

1.  Audiences in flux

When you look at a block of cheese, or a brick, it can look solid.  Unyielding.  But at the molecular level it is in constant motion. Same with TV: there’s a lot more movement within TV audiences than you might expect.
Take the first five episodes of the second series of Love Your Garden, Alan Titchmarsh’s ITV1 programme about improving gardens.  Its nightly audiences have been remarkably consistent.

June 26:  3.20 million

July 3:      3.33 million

July 10:    3.22 million

July 17:     3.25 million

July 24:    3.28 million
You’d think it was the same people each time, but it isn’t.  Most will have seen only one or two episodes, and each episode will have attracted around 60% of the viewers from the previous one.  A tiny proportion of the 3.2 million will have watched every episode.  Even within each episode, audiences will have come and gone – a churning mass, throbbing up and down.     What is even more remarkable is that the same thing happens with dramas.
If you are interested in audience behavioural shifts there’s a whole book about it, The Television Audience: Patterns of Viewing by Goodhardt, Ehrenberg and Collins.  I’m looking at a 1987 edition now – it tells me the proportion of viewers (meaning housewives in London during April and May 1971) to weekly programmes who bothered to tune in the following week.
If I told you that only half the audience (50%) to The Two Ronnies in 1971 tuned in the following week, I think you’d be surprised.
If I told you that less than half the audience to Val Doonican and Stars on Sunday came back each week I think you’d be impressed.
If I told you moreover that only half the viewers to the first half of a Z-Cars story on a Monday in 1967 bothered to watch the second half on the Tuesday, I think you would start to feel that little was real in life anymore.
If I told you that of the people who watched Brideshead Revisited, a drama across 11 episodes which aired in 1981, more people watched only one episode than 6 or more, and that more people watched precisely two episodes than nine or more you might think… but I fear I am losing you.
And you’ve got the point.
(though while I have your attention,… ‘Brideshead Revisited’?  ‘Brideshead Tried Out Once (if at all) And Not Bothered Again’ more like…)

“You are awful. But I like you”.
In 1971, a third of the population tuned in to Dick Emery each week, but more than 40% of these had not watched the previous week. Source Goodhardt et al.

I saw a mouse, where, there on the stair.. but more to the point, where’s last week’s BLOODY audience gone. I mean.. for feck’s sake.  They were here LAST WEEK.

So that’s a lot of friction right there.  In and out.

2. Watching sand fall:  Flux driving content


Imagine a pile of dry sand.  As you keep dropping grains of sand on top, it reaches the point at which any more sand will cause an avalanche. But you can’t tell whether it will be a small or large one.  Each avalanche releases tension, but only just.  That is what the world is now like: a constant state of potential collapse, from small inputs, seeking equilibrium, and always failing.
Good Thing or Bad Thing?
Bad Thing: Modern society built on a just-in-time delivery system, cramped space, feverish news media, dependence on advanced but vulnerable supply chains, whip-fast intermingling leaving us exposed to pandemics, growing inequalities (food shortages rubbing shoulders with immense wealth), information overload and economic interconnectedness… it all means that we are operating in a sensitive, fragile space. The old butterfly effect has always been an idea from science fiction or chaos theory, but seems to be getting closer to reality.   And don’t get me started on entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics or we’ll be here all night, but it’s all in there about the process of a collapsing society.
Good thing.   For television viewers, the idea of change is a sustaining concept in drama and news.
Soap Operas’ internal imbalance
Take soap operas, which rely on collapsing relationships, sturm und drang and trouble at t’ mill parcelled out over the long-term, or indeed, for ever.  The American academic Dennis Porter once explained (in this) how soap operas work:
‘In place of the formal conventions of well-made theater, we have a plethora of intersecting plot-lines, whose relative importance may vary from week to week but which never do more than work themselves haltingly towards interim conclusions.  In other words, the solutions to the problems posed are of such a kind that they are themselves generative of further problems.  Every marriage contains the form of its own divorce, every divorce faces a future.
Physicists call this effect – self-organised criticality.  Soaps work in the long-term when the lack of equilibrium is managed properly – too much instability can be as damaging as too little:
Late lamented Liverpudlian long-runner Brookside may have suffered from over-stimulation.  It over-spiced the stories with too many disasters and crimes, pushing it into dangerous shark-jumping territory in which regular viewers felt alienated and the sense of reality was broken’. Like an overflogged cart-horse.    With Crossroads (and the US soaps that are in terminal decline), the programme didn’t have the physical properties capable of creating an interesting reaction (that’s a Birmingham motel for you), and the audience was incapable of being motivated into a sustainable critical mass. Crossroads’ audience may have simply nodded off.
(Small piece of trivia:  Carlton Television, part of ITV, decided to revive Crossroads some years after it was cancelled.  So it began again in March 2001, just one month after David Cameron left his post as Carlton’s Director of Corporate Affairs, which raises the prospect that his last act in private employment might have involved drafting press releases for this misguided decision).

News:  Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…

As Newman explains on Seinfeld, ‘The mail never stops! It just keeps coming and coming and coming, there’s never a let-up! It’s relentless! Every day it piles up more and more and more! And you gotta get it out! But the more you get it out the more it keeps coming in!’  And that’s why postal workers sometimes snap and kill their colleagues.
Journalists don’t usually go postal in the same way, but it’s the same with news – it never stops.
News has to cope with the natural tendency to feature the short term events, rather than longer term trends. Fatigue sets in with long-term, but glacial paced stories like climate change, or population growth, rather than stories involving events, personalities, or novelty, or strong pictures.

(Sport:  Contrived Flux.   You can see how football has created an unending flow of stories, characters and data – a whole industry of speculation and participation – built around instability and change, which suck(er)s people in against their will.  No other sport manages this so successfully.  We’ll look at this another time).

3.   World in motion

Newman from Seinfeld. He explained how the unceasing arrival of mail can lead to mental collapse. There’s a scientific word for this, but it’s slipped my mind.

If News stories are driven by innate friction within the world as people, ideas, businesses and sports teams rub up against each other either in a constructive way, or a destructive way, that’s because the world is like that.  There may be BIG, macro Clash of Civilisations type tectonic instability, or simply a fresh batch of contestants arrives in the Big Brother house to entertain  people.
When you add in the different perspectives – see the duck/ rabbit in the image above – the dramatic possibilities increase further.  That’s how change happens – instability and creative flux.
When you add in the idea from (Gladwell’s Tipping Point or from Pareto’s 80/20 rule), that all people are not the same, and that a few of the right sort of person can make a big difference to the world, you can see why we are in a state of flux.
Stakes are getting a little higher – the sort of random fluctuations which turn up from time to timemay be more destabilising than they used to be.

4.  Future needs

Most of the forecasts about the future of television focus on the delivery platforms – how we will access TV. And some on the idea of a more open, more crowd-sourced content.
But a changing world has always delivered new programmes.  In recent years they have become more complex, more demanding of audience members and more ambiguous in how they cope with characters and outcomes.   But there do seem to be a few gaps on television.  The decline in deference and our desire for new things to try ought to have ushered in a wave of new types of programme and people.  We probably need a few more lively, articulate, smart voices – ones which can cope with lower budgets and production values – and from outside the usual channels. They don’t all need to have performed stand-up first, or be related to other presenters.
We have seen an increase in interest in sport – an oddly diverting but ultimately contrived form of entertainment. This might increase further (we may be merely scratching the surface of sporting possibilities), or we might go in the opposite direction – towards television with meaning.  Complexity in the world puts a premium on programmes that inspire, comfort, explain and amuse, rather than merely reflecting us back to ourselves.  Television has tended to see itself as a superior form of entertainment.  It might need to play a more active role as a catalyst – to add another term from physics – moderating change or steering us towards a more safe direction.
Next Time:  Top Totty on TV.  The Genius of Celebrity Juice

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