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).