Talking about TV

Mouth watering

A listener on BBC radio 5Live, trying to make sense of the BBC Newsnight debacle said this morning that ‘it’s something to talk about’.   And sometimes a TV programme or news story just needs to be teed up to unleash the tongues of the audience.  While every entertainment medium tries to claim the mantle of being The Social Medium, television fits the bill best because it’s the one we spend the longest enjoying and talking about with other people.

So, here’s a capsule Word of Mouth Gobbet of Nous, summarising who we talk to, why we talk, and what makes a television story ‘talkable‘.

OK, first of all,

Who do we talk to?

We all have a network of people we talk to, often about television programmes.

Apart from people in prison, old-people’s homes and hospitals, we normally watch TV with our family members, or mates, of course, but we talk about TV programmes with nearly everyone.  Including ‘Circumstantials’, who are the sort of people you speak to when buying a bun.  As in ‘Nice Buns, did you see the Kardashians last night‘?

When we looked at this, we found that people in the United Kingdom have smaller networks, especially the elderly whose contacts with the outer world can be positively vestigial.

British people like to banter at work, but are less connected with less-immediate family members

In India, work colleagues loom large, but so do extended families which, thanks to the brain drain, now extend globally.  Despite growing wealth and larger households, Indians often choose to have just one TV set, so TV is a particularly social, multi-generational affair at home.

In India, cousins and other relatives remain close. Ever been to an Indian wedding? Massive

In Ghana we found that the church provides a network of contacts that people talk to.  But football fans also gather to watch the Premier League together in groups in ways that would be familiar here.  The decline in the traditional large workplace may have fostered the growth in sports clubs, and the decline in the Church in the UK has helped to promote the rather peculiar secular obsession with talking about football matches and hanging out with fellow sufferers.

Why do we talk about TV programmes?

Lots of reasons, but consider these.  We want to connect with people – just to fill the silence.  Then again, sometimes we want to see if other people agree with our opinions, or just let it out. Sometimes we want to broadcast our opinions – it’s more educational, but can be tiring and annoying.  Finally, there can be a genuine spirit of enquiry – a real desire to learn something.

These all give the lie to the idea that TV is consumed in a passive way.  If we are talking about a programme, it’s moved well beyond our ears and into our emotions, and we have become a protagonist in a memetic contagion. Or words to that effect, to coin a phrase.

What do we say to whom?

Well, the thing about TV is that you can switch between modes with different people.  When you combine the motivation to talk with the individual network, you can see broad patterns.

If we are talking about TV with someone in the bakery, it’s not normally to learn something. Similarly, we shouldn’t be using TV merely as a way to break the ice at home.



What types of story do we talk about

Why do some subjects just sit there, un-discussed, while others get tossed around wantonly?

In the struggle between competing programmes to be discussed, the winner is likely to be the one with the conversational hooks.  We looked at this in terms of news stories, but they extend to television as well.

We found five elements of stories which seemed to trigger viewers to talk about them

We like to talk about programmes and stories which involve some sort of trauma, or jeopardy.  An element of real pain and danger that makes them edgy or spicy, or just interesting.

Then again, much of it is about people.  Humans relate to stories with characters, especially when they are good (heroes) or villains (scandal).  halfway between those two points is hubris – the failure of a once respected and proud figure.

Finally, anything funny works too.

So if a story has an element of horror, or a hero, or a scandal, or hubris, or humour, we find it easier to discuss.  If they manage two of these things, then so much the better.  The Jimmy Savile abuse story has all five the ingredients of a talkable story – see chart.  But we can think of others.  The recent journalistic travails of the BBC seem to have avoided humour, trauma and heroism, but have been sold on the basis of hubris and scandal

We can approach the Jimmy Savile story from multiple angles. And it’s about TV, sort of, which is always easy to talk about

The discussion about who would win the 2012 US Presidential Election and the value of momentum was easier to talk about through the prism of the heroic (or scandalous, for some) Nate Silver.

Climate Change is the biggest of topics, but lacks the individual human dimension, AND either humour or trauma (except as speculative forecast). The success of climate change deniers in confusing the issue has stemmed in part from their ability to create specious conspiracy stories among climate change scientists.  It’s far harder to get people to embrace the challenge when the evidence is all in the data and doesn’t fit  In fact you could write an excellent book about the sellability of scandalous conspiracy theories if David Aaronovitch hadn’t done so first.

Talking, talking…

Could we start talking about programmes, and not the BBC management, PLEASE.



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