Shed Heaven

Hiding out

A Shed:  Looks nicer from the inside

A Shed of the Year nomination: Looks nicer from the inside

I’m taking delivery of a shed tomorrow between 12 and 4.  It’s arriving flat-packed and I will attempt to put it together, though it’s only fair to confess that if sheds are redolent of craft-ish, handy men, that’s not me.  There’s an even chance that said shed will resurface in various neighbours gardens by the evening, if I am strong enough to throw it.

It’s very shed right now. At the weekend I watched Shed of the Year on Channel 4.  Someone who should know better tweeted sarcastically (@adamhess1, who deserves to be un-followed instantly)

We’ve finally done it guys! We’ve officially done every possible idea for a TV show. Great work everybody.

As if this was real barrel-scraping desperation.  But not only was Shed of the Year a terrific programme – taking sheds to luxurious and aesthetic heights – the writer was perhaps unaware that a whole channel is named after sheds: ‘Discovery Shed’.  When it launched it was described thus:

“the place for men who like good old practical activities to escape to”

Although perhaps:

‘the place for men who like to escape’

Would be more grammatically stylish, and accurate.

And that’s how we think of sheds on TV, is it not: Jack Hargreaves whittling, Bob Fleming coughing and the Doctor travelling through time (yes, the TARDIS is clearly a shed).  Men of a certain age, doing practical things, on their own or with a young helper.

Embarrassing hobbies

When the subject matter is a little mildewed, TV will sex it up. So Shed of the Year deployed many devices:

A contest (gives it structure but please, no wagering),

Lively, un-shed-like presenters (if anything, they seemed a little Hoxton-tinged)

Superlatives (incredible… wow, first, ‘the world’s first ever walking egg’, ‘such a ground-breaking shed’, eco-masterpiece, fantastic, brilliant).  Most of them deserved.

‘This is magnificent isn’t it. It’s almost not even a shed isn’t it?’

Counter-scheduling (this Thursday the next episode is opposite programmes about Peter Sutcliffe, Beavers Behaving Badly, sport and a doc about the crew of a dredger… OK, that’s not counter-programming, that’s going with a flow…)

A sense of universality: ‘Everyone should have a shed of their own’.  These amazing structures were generally cheap to build.

Authentic craftsmanship – these things were genuinely beautiful. Who doesn’t want to watch that?

Real people.  One may have said ‘A shed defines your life’ but they sounded more rounded than that, and not only the shed that was tea-pot-shaped. Having said that, they were all men.

Still, more than 2 million viewers overnight (yes, @adamhess1, 2 million).  More than Fargo and Utopia combined.   Particularly popular among middle-aged men, but also the people who love them.

The only problem? The public vote in the best ‘Unique Shed’ category clearly voted for the least interesting nomination – a cinema shed.  I’m sorry to be controversial, but THAT IS NOT A PROPER SHED.  It’s a wooden home-cinema purporting to be a shed.

One thing barely mentioned (apart from the cinema shed), the idea of actually watching TV in the shed.  And it’s true, is it not, that sheds are not associated with watching TV.  Why is that?  Aren’t they made for each other?  Especially now that TV is so portable.

No, they are not made for each other.

It reminded me of a project at work which explored how we like to watch TV, and why viewing in bedrooms and outside the living room was such a tiny part of viewing.  The  team at Flamingo pointed out that while we had expected new technology to have a centrifugal effect on our lives – driving us from our office to work at home, and from our living room into high-tech hubs in our bedrooms, or sheds – we actually LIKE being together. Not all the time, but when we are watching TV programmes and films.

Co-location matters.

[As an aside, I’ve been reading Family Breakdown, by Penelope Leach.  It’s about how to help children through a parental split.  Leach argues that during the process of separation and beyond, children need the stability of a single base: splitting them between the places where their mum and dad live adds to the sense of disorientation. When times are troubled, we like a particular base to call our own].

And without wanting to force the point too much, for most of us comfort, it isn’t the shed, it’s inside the house.  For all their woody-charm, sheds are lonely and depressing places that we might go to for a particular reason, to get away. When we’re not escaping or… I’m going to avoid smutty references… We want to be where others are.  Somewhere the wolf can’t blow down by moderate huffing and puffing.

And when it’s not about preferring to be in particular places for particular things, it’s about other people.  We do some things on our own, and other things with other people.

Consider Fifty Shades of Grey the book, compared with Fifty Shades of Grey, the film… We like to read books alone, don’t we.  But we like to see films with others, generally. If not with them, then so we can talk about it after. A steamy S&M themed novel fits a solo experience. Do we want to sit with a crowd of strangers (or even our partner) watching people who love each other very much* tormenting each other with whips?

Perhaps, but not in a public place.

A cinema in a shed.  Is that still a shed?  No. It's a Contradiction In Terms.

A cinema in a shed. Is that still a shed? No. It’s a Contradiction In Terms.

I’d go Fifty Shades of Pink if I did that.  Fifty Shades of Grey will flop in cinemas.  Not because it’s bad, but because the story is unsuited to the communal way most of us like watch films.

The best place to watch the 50 Shades of Grey film?

In a shed.  Got to be.


My Shed… it’s arrived

Tears may be shed

Tears may be shed


Not a Shed kinda person?  This song is for you

(* for any children reading)

One for all and all for one

The Politics of Televisual Personalisation

David McCandless creates wonderful data visualisations*.  Here’s a favourite – in which he maps the differences between being left-wing and right-wing. It tries to be even-handed, though its creator admits that at times it reflects his own position on the continuum.   On the left we find a leftist society and viewpoint: an inclusive world of equality, empathy and egalitarianism.  On the right it’s centred on freedom and self-reliance, morality and individuality.  The diagram simplifies many complexities, but it makes sense and looks so pretty.

Which side are you on?

1276_left_right_world But what has it got to do with television?

Well, I’ve been trying to understand why I find it so hard to get excited about personalisation in TV.  One hears about it all the time. Future-gazers look at scheduled linear TV and see it as leftism gone mad – why should we watch the same programmes at the same time?  It’s like a communist state imposing a particular size of loaf.

Video on demand, in whatever guise, whether Netflix or 4oD or iPlayer or whatever, they argue is about empowerment and individuality.  And who can complain about that?  But there’s a hint of the right about that too.  It’s choice, but on my terms: my choice to send my children to private school, to live in a gated community, to finagle a special low tax arrangement, to use this holiday cottage two weeks a year and so on. It’s freedom, but not available to all.  And has costs on society

I was at a recent media event and the MC began by telling a heart-warming story about his grandfather who was a shopkeeper.  His shop was at the top of the hill and was always busy.  A similar shop nearby was generally empty.  So he asked his grandfather why this was, and the reply was an enigmatic tap of finger to nose.  But the next day he watched as customers arrived and each was greeted by a cheery welcome from the owner, who asked how they were and after the health of their mother or children, and did they want their usual order and about something special they might like… It was the personal service that won them over and built loyalty.

The word that kept coming back through the day was personalisation.  The man from Google wrote off billboards as hopeless mass-marketed: just couldn’t see that they have a place in a modern, targeted world when we could personalise advertising messages.

The man from the IAB was very excited by it all – power had shifted from business to the individual.  Marketing was now human and not corporate: consider Amazon and Netflix  and the individualised, tailored service they offer.  But is that true?

As one member of the public pointed out, what is labelled as personalised is actually a clever algorithm that simply responds automatically to behaviour based on probabilities.  It says your name (Welcome Back Jeremy) because you told it what it was – it doesn’t really like you.  If the MC’s grandfather had run a bookshop then no amount of personal service would have saved his business from the grim logic of Amazon’s monopoly-enabled price reductions and personalised door to door delivery.

If personalisation means that we are all special in our own way and deserve respect then that would appeal across the political spectrum. But if personalisation means that the collective is bad, or that there is something weird about shared experiences  – sitting together and feeling at one with the world and with people that we will never meet – then that positions the concept firmly in the right hand side of the political spectrum.  It places a higher priority on difference, exclusivity and closed over shared, commonly available and open.

And that doesn’t apply to television.   The economics of television requires a critical mass to watch the programmes.  Critical is important here.  But so is mass.   We respond as individuals, but the programme is created for us because we are members of a very wide group.  Bolting personalisation onto the experience misunderstands what watching television is all about in a way that sounds benign, but has a pernicious undercurrent.

One or two have argued that McCandless’s diagram needs another dimension, to reflect authoritarianism and libertarianism.  So you can be a conservative who believes in minimal interference on your life, or a hippy who feels the same way.  You can hold authoritarian views from the left or the right.  So perhaps personalisation can swing both ways, but it sounds right-wing.  (And that’s fine if that’s your thing – I voted for Mrs Thatcher once myself).

But generally, things go together – so it was recently reported that people with good credit ratings submit fewer insurance claims. Cleanliness, we hear is close to godliness.

When people call for personalisation in watching TV programmes we might want to ask how they really feel about other people, about society and about what matters. Is that left-wing personalisation, or right-wing?


*I bought a print of McCandless’s Left Right visualisation and it is framed at home.  You can buy them here

Desperate for a positive


It was a remarkable thing was it not, when Germany beat Brazil 1-7.  That never happens.  But, a few lucky punters HAD predicted it.  They were covered in the papers.

The Guardian, remarkably covered it as:

World Cup 2014: gamblers win big after backing Germany 7-1 Brazil at 500-1

But as the story explains further down:

One gambler from the east of England won £2,500 after wagering just £5. William Hill said that none of its 120,000 customers who bet on the result had picked 7-1 as the final score.

The story was covered everywhere.  Here, here, in Russia, and in New Zealand

This raises multiple issues.

First, the imbalance between the headline – about a handful of lucky punters – set against the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of losing bets.  What’s that all about?  It’s akin to the story of the earthquake seen through the prism of the surviving baby.  Look, the sad news is that 160,000 died, but on the other hand, a miracle baby was saved, by the ‘the mercy of God’ apparently…

Next, consider the ‘winning’ gamblers.  A crazy winning bet isn’t a sign of luck but a window into the world of desperation and misplaced hope on which the gambling industry is based.  We can only guess how much they were gambling before, but what about this impact of this win?  A life spent fruitlessly looking to repeat the trick?  The impact of this fluke will almost certainly be more bets, and a net loss.

Finally, the curious interaction between our desire for entertainment, the newspapers’ need to sustain the story (these reports were still arriving several days after the match), and the success of the gambling industry’s PR operation. Millions of their clients lose money, but they create a meme about winners, illustrated with photos of the happy punter with a stash of cash outside a bookies.  The newspaper and TV industries now make so much money from gambling advertising that one wonders whether they can examine the negative impact of this miserable trade.

What’s this got to do with TV? 

Well, I could get sniffy, in audience measurement terms, about the way we rate the occasional singular viewing behaviour (our own) above those of the masses (who actually matter).  But more broadly, consider the magnificence of the televisual experience – 14 million Britons tuned in, (and 33 million Germans).  This was an exceptional sporting event, but every night we gather to be entertained.   And then consider the crowd of opportunists that hang around it.  Newspapers and other news organisations, of course, filling space.  Nothing wrong with that.  Social media, of course, hangs around, joining in the chorus (and notice how a few tweeters are accorded more power than the silent majority).

And gambling slopes around in the background, like drug pushers at a club offering to ‘enhance’ the experience.

But wonderful TV programmes really don’t need these desperate stimulants.


Aesthetic bias

Context, always

My interest in wine as an aesthetic experience died a little when test after test found that experts drinking blind were unable to judge quality. When white wine is coloured red, tasters think it is red.  We are driven by our eyes and a range of silly biases.

Yes, That's Torvill and Dean. From 30 years ago. easy

Yes, That’s Torvill and Dean. From 30 years ago. easy

Nope. Haven't got a clue. (Small clue... they won the gold in 2010)...  Don't know or care.

Nope. Haven’t got a clue. (Small clue… they won the gold in 2010)… still don’t know.


It’s like that with art. When we know that a painting is by a great master, we suddenly decide that it is really well painted. Special.

So much better than that other painting, by Anon.

It's a genuine Michelangelo.  Or just pretend.

It’s a genuine Michelangelo. Or just pretend.

And then there’s sport.  When Torvill and Dean came out of retirement for the 1994 Winter Olympics, their bronze medal winning performance was watched by 24 million people in the UK. 24 MILLION.

How many people bother to watch Ice Dance now?  2.4 million?  240,000?  Are the dancers no good any more?   Of course they are.  They may even be better.  We just don’t care to watch.

It’s a little peculiar – our interest waxes and wanes according to the presence, or otherwise, of one of our people.  And if they aren’t dancing?  Well we’re not interested.

I’ve long felt the same way about football.  I’ve always liked the game, but as an arch rationalist I can’t cope with the tribalism. It makes no sense. One of the biggest arguments against belief in a religion is the somewhat obvious presence of a rather similar religion down the road.  Basic modesty and self-awareness dictates that we question our own beliefs when we seem so similar to people who believe something completely different.  Are we so different?  Yet we develop stupid loyalties to ‘our team’, like an idiotic cult member.

TV audiences are like that. We accept or reject a programme not because of what the programme is, but because of something about us.

It is all hopelessly driven by context.  We don’t watch because of it (any more than British viewers watched Torvill and Dean and didn’t watch this year’s championship because of the quality of the dancing), but because of something deep about ourselves.

Isn’t that a little odd?

To everything there is a season

Moving On, naturally

Jeremy Bentham's head. Yes, we can preserve something.  But should we?

Jeremy Bentham’s head. Yes, we can preserve something. But should we?

Like berries growing in polytunnels, we are spared from weather-based seasonal rhythms by the enfeebling effects of central heating and air-conditioning.  Good thing too. Especially in January.

And TV schedules are helpfully calibrated to fit in.  We need more TV when it is cold and dark, so the TV people put on their best programmes in the winter, and show more repeats and fillers in the Summer.

(Though it is interesting (is it not), that countries with the most sun (see map) such as the US, Italy and Spain, watch the most TV).

Yes, we get less sun, but we can watch TV, so swings/roundabouts

Yes, we get less sun here, but we can stay in and watch TV, so swings/roundabouts

The seasons are important for the natural world – growth and die-back keeps things moving along in a healthy fashion.  Forests need trees to fall over to bring in light and rebirth. Even forest fires are said to provide long-term benefits.
The death of a single whale benefits whole communities of bottom-feeding detritivores at the sea-bed (a similar process sustains the editorial team at the Daily Express).
This morning Margaret Drabble argues that our lives are being extended unnecessarily by medical science: a triumph for longevital quantity at the expense of quality.  For Drabble, the right to die is the right to live.  Steve Jobs – who always believed that he wouldn’t have a long life expressed it in 2005:

 Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

Death is efficient too.  The British economy is said to be damaged by the pernicious influence of zombie companies – unsuccessful firms that are protected from bankruptcy by well-meaning do-gooders and stumble along at the expense of nascent enterprises.

Television has a good system for change – it kills programmes off.  This sometimes happens brutally when they’re just getting into their stride, but more often when they have outstayed their welcome.  Like dead young pop and movie idols, the ones that left early enjoy a more successful afterlife.

Soaps aside, TV dramas are, like all of us, doomed.  If they stay the same (which is what we like) we get bored, and when stories are resolved (which we also like), there is eventually nowhere for them to go beyond shark-jumping and desperate reinvention.  We might enjoy a long-running romance, whether it is Tony and Debbie (Men Behaving Badly), House and Cuddy, Jim/Pam, Tim/Dawn (The Offices), but cannot cope with consummation.

And that’s OK, because another drama will turn up soon enough.  Sometimes, failure is the mother of (re)invention, while a successful programme feels obliged to milk itself empty.

The same thing happens with music – the life of a heart-throb was once said to last only as long as the posters on the walls of their teenage fans took to start curling up in the corners and to need replacing.  Technological advances in Blu-Tack may have added a few months to the life cycle of many boy bands.  But they came and went as their fans grew up and younger siblings found someone new.

Friendships generally don’t last. A decade ago, the website Friends Reunited, like a dose of L-Dopa to catatonic patients, revived school-based relationships from decades of comatic torpor with unpredictable, but generally short-term results.  A fascinating, and historically unique experiment played itself out, and then stopped.

But an interesting process is happening now in which otherwise ephemeral relationships are being sustained. It started with the long-tail effects of online distribution methods, allowing us to access the TV programmes, films and music of our youth.  Sensible people learn to try enjoy new things.

Now Twitter and Facebook are starting to offer a blend of botox or life-support to the life-cycles of celebrities and TV programmes.

I can’t be the only person who, flushed with a brief infatuation for a star of The Great British Bake Off or X Factor, started following them on Twitter.  A few months later, no longer interested in hearing another word, I unfollowed them.  In one or two cases, the reason for following in the first place was undermined by their inevitable self-promotion.  But in any case, why would I want to continue reading the comments of someone whose baking or singing skills I admired briefly.

It can be satisfying to end an already unrequited relationship with these people, and it can’t just drift to a close as memories fade.  A decision to end it has to be taken.  Either that, or the tweets keep coming, unwanted and becoming annoying.  There’s ennui – our response to tweets or status updates by people we just want to fuck off.  And there’s vulgarity too: it’s just bad taste.  No-one need stress about the life of a One Direction member but we can worry, a little, about what will happen with Niall Horan’s 16 million followers as he carries on tweeting through the years.  Or Kimberley and the others from Bake Off.   Perhaps some will carry on reading them.  But should they?  How will they move on?

At least with cryonics, the frozen bodies are kept hidden from view.  But suppose they kept talking to us?

Sometimes keeping things going is just cruel.

Chairman Mao in Beijing. I preferred Madame Tussaud's

Chairman Mao in Beijing. I preferred Madame Tussaud’s

Lenin's body in Moscow. I much preferred the Novodevichy Cemetery

Lenin’s body in Moscow. I much preferred the Novodevichy Cemetery









P.S. I’d like to provide a musical accompaniment for the theme of death here with Agnes Obel’s Words are Dead ‘Lower Them Down in the Ground’, but I can’t find any decent clips.  So try this, Fuel To Fire… a reminder that fuel is often derived from organic sediment (dead things):

Good Jobs

Keeps the doctor away, they say

I’ve just finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Great work Walter… I loved it.

Steve Jobs... nominative determinism would dictate that his success stemmed from combining two disciplines

Steve Jobs… nominative determinism would dictate that his success stemmed from combining two disciplines – in his case art and technology

I loved it for many reasons, and not only because it confirms that people who love animals so much that they never eat them are often absolute ARSES to other people.

(I’m also reading Morrissey’s autobiography.  It says the same thing).

But I loved it mainly because it was such a wonderful story.

I could have done with a few more numbers – what was Apple’s market share?  How many computers were actually sold… that sort of thing. But perhaps that would have spoiled it.  Would Goldilocks work better if we knew the temperature of the porridge?  It’s a story of personal triumph, the power of an individual to change the world, or small companies beating big ones, of someone rising and falling and rising, of art and commerce…

It’s also about maaaaad decisions that turned out to be correct:

  • Closed end-to-end hardware and software bundling systems like Apple coming out ahead of open-source code and software which could run on multiple hardware like Microsoft
  • … by coming out ahead I mean more profitable and creative.
  • Opening Apple shops.  Opening them at all, but especially in high rent areas, when purchasers would either buy online or drive to cheap areas
  • Out Disneying Disney at Pixar from a standing start
  • Launching a tablet controlled by fingers instead of with a stylus…

How did Jobs succeed, apart from the bit about being an arsehole and with inspired judgement about changing tastes?  He used to quote Wayne Gretzky’s line ‘Skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been‘.  (So much better than ‘You miss 100% of the shots you never take’, which is shit)

Jobs and Apple succeeded by marrying technology and art in a way his competitors couldn’t.  Part of his genius was by focusing above all on simplifying the user experience.  Everyone else over-complicated things.

On that note, have you noticed how people routinely bracket together the phone and the tablet and predict that they will take over from the TV and the computer for watching TV programmes.  But in programme terms, the tablet is simple like a TV, while the phone is a multi-function communications device like a freaking computer.

According to the BBC’s iPlayer stats, which devices grew between January and November 2013?  Must be phones, yes?  NO.  It was television sets and tablets.  Not PCs, and not phones which both fell  So the growing ones were screens designed for video, and the shrinking ones are devices which we also use for checking how old Ian McShane is or calling our Mum, or sending messages.

People don’t really want to watch TV programmes on a freaking phone or computer when there’s a simple screen available.

Jobs understood that.

Anyway, Isaacson wisely decides that Jobs summarises the secrets of success best:

It was great to make a profit because that was what allowed you to make great products.  But the products, not the profits were the motivation.  It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who get promoted, what you discuss in meetings…

Some people say, ‘Give the customer what they want’. But that’s not my approach.  Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. .. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.  That’s why I never rely on market research’.*

Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science.  I like that intersection. 

There’s something magical about that place.  There are a lot of people innovating, but that’s not the main distinction of my career.  The reason Apple succeeds is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation.  Some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side. In the seventies, computers became a way for them to express their creativity.  Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo were also great at science.  Michaelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor.

Isaacson p 522-3.

That’s the sort of thing a TV executive would say, which is why it has become such a wonderful, evolving medium.   It doesn’t sound much like ‘big data’ or behavioural targeting, or monetising social interactions.  It is rooted in love of creativity and innovation, but rooted also in understanding the consumer experience, not loving the technology, or following the consumer’s opinion.

It’s a wonderful story.  Inspiring.

Good Jobs?  Not always. (Goodness might be over-rated). Great jobs more like.


* As a market researcher I’d be worried about dissing the profession.  But it’s all about expectation, context, and interpretation. The best research provides a model for understanding behaviour and encouraging creativity, not stifling it.


The original Apple Macintosh advert.  Interesting how the internet giant housing the film looks more like Big Brother than the woman wielding the hammer..

TV Choice, online monopoly

Doing the right thing

Well, it's a start, but I'm not sure it'll work.

Well, it’s a start, but I’m not sure it’ll work.

When analogue transmissions were switched off last year, the structural advantage of ‘terrestrial’ TV channels disappeared and now all viewers have loads of choice. So viewers watch more channels. The days of a duopoly have gone and no channel manages more than a fifth of viewing.  We love the ritual of joining the crowd by watching together, but we do this across more channels than ever.

TV is less monopolistic than ever.


Because we like to have options.  Choice may be over-rated, but good or ill, audiences have more of it than ever.

Mmm.... fragmentation.... I had to use some colours twice

Mmm…. fragmentation…. I had to use some colours twice


Now consider ‘social media’.  The big three are all American (which may be familiar in terms of technology, but is very unusual, and largely unremarked for advertising or media).

Will Hutton argues that this has happened because the US has recognised the money-making power of writing code in a way that we have not. And despite all the apparent competition online, they have the ring of natural monopolies about them because the network effect confers advantages on them.  The bigger you are, the bigger you get.

So Google/Youtube dominates search and video. Facebook dominates friend networks, while Twitter dominates instant messaging to friends and strangers. And you can broaden this to Amazon. American’s aren’t only good at writing code.  They excel at investing to dominate.

Can it be broadened further to food?  No. Starbucks and MacDonald’s may feel ubiquitous but they don’t really dominate do they?  There’s a natural limit to their market share because we value diversity. And as we have embraced food cultures from around the world the big players look smaller than ever.

How superpowers are created

How superpowers are created

But online, things are different.  Many of us have tolerated Amazon putting cherished local book shops out of business because of their customer service and prices.  But their aggressive tax avoidance so enraged me that I stopped using Amazon last year and have bought nothing from them since. Their ability to undercut competitors by exploiting financial loopholes and by grinding out monopolistic dominance would be bad enough.  But the patent absurdity of their pretence at not making British profits was the final straw. It now has 79% of the E-book market.

And yet people with social consciences who pay their taxes and who would generally stand-up for the little guy feel compelled, it seems, to link to a single Luxembourg-owned (ha!) online entity when referring to books online.

That’s what a monopoly looks like.

What about social media?  They compete with each other, but there isn’t really a serious challenger to Google/ Youtube, Facebook, or Twitter in each of their areas of dominance.

Google is responsible for 89% of online searches.

Online search share.  It's like a bloody Japanese flag

Online search share. It’s like a bloody Japanese flag

Google (via Youtube, which it owns), is more than 80% of the time spent in the UK with online video (not counting porn).  It obviously dominates Maps too.

45% Porn.  It's shameful. But the money shot is on the left.

45% Porn. It’s shameful. But the money shot is on the left.

Facebook dominates social media among friends.

Twitter likewise (to a lesser extent) on social messaging.

There have been myriad complaints about dominance of the energy market by just six players. But none of them dominates their sector to the extent that we see online.  The Competition Commission examines mergers which represent a quarter of a market. Google is WAY above that.

Media owners feel obliged to help embed these monopolistic characteristics by working with the market leaders.  So TV channels allow their content onto Youtube. They create pages on Facebook. And they put Twitter hashtags on their programmes in a way that is unavailable to normal advertisers and sponsors. TV journalists with unimpeachable credentials routinely use twitter to communicate with members of the public.

How can a rival to any of these options compete with these built in advantages?

But isn’t all this a little strange?  The other day I was listening to the channel controller of BBC Radio 1 explaining why he was creating a dedicated space for its video content – performances by bands, interviews and so 0n.  I was sceptical – can’t radio just be radio?  Until the interviewer asked a simple question.

Why are you bothering with a Radio 1 video channel when you can just put the videos on Youtube?

Let’s think about this… Why would the license-fee funded BBC have its own video outlet when it can simply use Youtube; Youtube, the advertising funded, foreign owned, private entity with a monopolistic stranglehold over online video?

Can you imagine the BBC being asked why it bothers with its own video outlet when it could put all its videos onto the Daily Mail site?  Or Tesco?  Or … Virgin?

So for some, the relationship between TV programmes or channels with their audiences in the UK must to be mediated online through branded, monopolistic foreign-owned channels.  And we know they are foreign-owned because they make a point of ensuring that they are.  It’s quite peculiar.

The fact is, TV viewers are increasingly protected from exploitation (to some extent) by the fragmentation.  But why isn’t the internet like that?  If the net was supposed to usher in a democratic world of creativity and easy distribution, why is it dominated by a tiny few?  And what are the obligations of those companies who find themselves in a position of dominance?

If they are going to be accorded such largesse they have to do the decent things.  Like TV stations do. And that means, at an absolute minimum, being everso ‘umble, and paying a proper tax on the profits they make on their activities in the UK.

If they can’t do that… someone from the government will need to have a private word…



The 1960s and viewer behaviour

A mystery and no mistake: The absconding viewer

The 1960s.  A different world.  Viewers could, eventually, choose between three (three!) channels.

Mostly in black and white.

So basically viewers would stick with a programme loyally from week to week, in that sheep-like way we associate with our forefathers. Yes?


What do you mean the viewers are running amok... you were supposed to be guarding 'em

What do you mean the viewers are running amok… you were supposed to be guarding ’em

Consider Z-Cars

A weekly drama about coppers near Liverpool.  Sometimes they had special two-part episodes on successive nights – Monday and Tuesday from 7-7.30.  A single story but across two nights.

Probably people either watched both episodes or opted out completely. Open or shut, as it were.

Here’s the evidence:

1st half, Monday May 1st 1967:     24% of people viewed

2nd half, Tuesday May 2nd 1967: 24% of people viewed

Bang to rights.  A little under quarter of the population watched the two episodes.  Given only three channels and a continuing story, why not?

The people who watched the first would want to know how it ended.  And if you missed the beginning, why start late?  That’s common-sense.

Nothing to see here.  Move along sir (…or madam).

Except it wasn’t.

Only 12% of the population saw both episodes.  So only around half the people who watched on Monday bothered to watch on Tuesday.  And half the audience on Tuesday had missed the first episode.

Why did half the Monday audience drift off, and why did half the Tuesday viewers not watch on Monday or bother to watch on Tuesday?

Bert Lynch would call that rum. 

(yes, Bert Lynch.  Not Bet. That’s someone in Manchester.  Miles away).

But that’s not all.  When they* looked at programmes in 1971 – a world of three channels still – they found the same thing.  Only about half the viewers to one episode of Top of The Pops, Match of the Day or The Two Ronnies  – programmes viewed by a quarter of the country – could be arsed to tune in two weeks in a row.

Consider Brideshead Revisited

It was on ITV, 32 years ago (36 years after Waugh’s novel was published) and around a fifth of the population watched each of the 11 episodes.

But only 4% of the population managed to watch 10 or more episodes.

Brideshead Revisited?  Brideshead visited once or twice and then dumped more like

Brideshead Revisited? Brideshead visited once or twice and then dumped more like

Quick... while they're sleeping... let's sneak off.  They won't notice.  Shh...

Quick… while they’re sleeping… let’s sneak off. They won’t notice. Shh…









As many people saw one episode than 6 or more.  More people saw precisely two episodes than 8 or more.

Sebastian Flyte might call that a little queer. 

But to understand is to forgive all… 

It wasn’t a failing on the part of Brideshead.  They’re all like that.

A Duplication of Viewing Law had been discovered, the 55% Rule

It found that around 55% of the audience to a programme would have seen the previous episode. Or would go on to watch the next episode.  And it didn’t even matter what type of programme it was.  Or how good it was.

‘Failure to repeat-view seems to be a reflection of irregular or infrequent viewing habits, not of any special dislike or lack of interest in what had already been seen.  The only variation was to do with the size of the audience – bigger shows had slightly greater loyalty’  (Goodhart, Ehrenberg, Collins)

And there, in a nutshell is what happens not only on TV viewing, but across most consumer categories and services and all the rest.  All these numbers are from The Television Audience: Patterns of Viewing co-written by Andrew Ehrenberg (see picture), and it covers much of the marketing fundamentals that are espoused by the Ehrenberg-Bass Insitute, and its Director, Professor Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow.  Audiences come and go, just like consumers do.  Little loyalty, a high willingness to drop what they enjoy or to try something different given half an excuse to do so.  All marketers and consumer researchers need to be alive to the myth of loyalty and the under-appreciation of how many people mill about (and the importance of the occasional purchaser)…

..getting into all sorts of trouble…

That’s their modus operandi.  It’s got their dabs all over it.

And what sort of people are they, these viewers of whom the authors speak?  The authors spend a little time creating an E-fit of the perp.

‘In the UK, women tend to watch perhaps 10% more TV than do men, and older people much more (50%) than younger ones. But otherwise these approaches (audience profiles) have produced few very revealing or insightful results, and thus will not be pursued extensively here.  Television is largely a mass market activity’ (Goodhart etc p8)

And that, as they say, is that.

The whole country has been fingered.


PS:  Tell you what I’ll do…. I’ll update these Z Cars and Brideshead numbers with a programme from nowadays. What’s happened now?  Next week.  In the meantime, keep ’em peeled.

Fundamentals. (thank you to Peter Menneer for lending me the book)

Fundamentals. (thank you to Peter Menneer for lending me the book)



These are small. But the ones out there are far away

Losing our sense of perspective

The good people at Twitter have recruited Stanley Milgram to their promotional team, using one of his experiments to bolster their notion that TV viewers are drawn to what other people are watching, and that Twitter can help.

Milgram posted an assistant in the street, staring up at something in the distance. He then measured the proportion of passers-by who were curious enough to try to find out what his assistant was looking at.  Then he asked another assistant to join the first, and they both looked in the same direction.  Then three and so on. As the group grew, the percentage of passers-by who checked out what they were looking at went up.

It’s the sort of experiment that supports nudge/ herd theories of our behaviour being suggestible by the action of others.

Twitter pointed out that the number of passers-by who check out what the small group are staring at climbs rapidly until the group numbers five people, and then flattens out.

So 5 people are a crowd when they are right in front of you.

That’s how Twitter works – a small group doing something similar looks like a trend – positioning themselves, as it were, on your shoulder or next to your TV set, giving a running commentary, barking at you while you are watching.  Like a cox urging on a crew.

If you don’t notice them yourself, never mind, because journalists or the people you follow respond to some of them and you get to hear about them too.

Why does this matter?  Because these small groups are having the effect of poisoning everything.

Take two very different but equally enjoyable programmes.  The Great British Bake-off and Educating Yorkshire.  Each one centres on good people trying to create something wonderful to eat, or something wonderful of themselves.

Like other viewers, I talk about these programmes with friends, and have written about them here.  They have millions of viewers, quietly watching them, and loving the experience.

A small number choose to express themselves on Twitter, and a small number of these choose to be negative about the people on the programmes.  Unlike characters in dramas, the people in the programmes are real.  They might not be perfect (though some come close), but to observe their struggles is to feel genuine affection for them.  But not always: I’ve loathed some of the behaviour in Educating Yorkshire.  And that’s because an attention-seeking, time-wasting pupil diverts the whole class.  Similarly, if a few dozen people out of these millions chooses to share their nastiness towards the people in these programmes, it risks ruining everything.

Obviously, many people on Twitter are perfectly civil and amusing and add an interesting dimension to watching a programme.

Oh that IS useful.  A 'shoulder angel' tattoo, keeping me company while I watch TV. (Please, for the love of god, fuck off).

Oh that IS useful. A ‘shoulder angel’ tattoo, keeping me company while I watch TV. Giving me ‘tips’. (Please, for the love of god, shhhh).

But it is the opinions of the ‘haters’ that are are amplified by lazy journalists looking to stir things up. You get this sort of rubbish.  Or this.

It’s as if we invited in a stranger to add a spoonful of wasabi to the middle of our magnificent, and complete, show-stopper cake, as a way to get them involved.  Or if we invited a heckler on stage.

At the ballet.

Because in the big scheme of things, these people don’t matter.  They never have. They are a tiny minority of a tiny minority.  No-one should give a liliputian toss what they think – we never did before, and it’s only the megaphone effect of certain social media that has enabled them to be heard at all.   That and the human perspective in which an single person next to us looms larger than a massive crowd just round the corner: especially when the individual in question is being an arsehole.

It’s like Horton Hears a Who in reverse – the ones we notice most are often the tiniest.  And that, in a nutshell (because it is often quite small) is the trick most social media has managed to perform.

What broadcasters could try – beyond avoiding the nonsense (unlike here) – is to find a way to reflect the enormous size of the happily benign, relative to the awful few.  To reveal the enormity of the happy crowd, to isolate the loneliness of the bottom-feeders, and to pity them.


Concentrated goodness

Quality time

I usually write about TV programmes, and the manifold pleasures they can bring.  The stories and characters, the artists’ vision.  Deep joy.

On a quiet night in, a good programme completes me.

And occasionally an advert can manage the same trick.

Don’t read any more until you’ve watched the film.

In a way, its appeal is obvious, but let me explain.  John Yorke would call this a fractal; the compact 60 seconds of the Robinsons advert contains all the elements we find in the wider medium.

Everything we want from television is there in concentrated form.

Characters, a story, a mystery, music, a surprise ending and a piece of wisdom.  There’s a fight scene, a quote from a famous film, some sport, some sunny out-doors and some cosy indoors, a potential romance for the future, equality and dependence, humour and love…

It doesn’t have any women.  Where are they… what is going on?  What was the brand manager thinking?! There’s a mystery if you want to think about it.

And the sudden twist.  They aren’t boys at all – one is the other’s father.  It’s an astonishing moment.  Like when Zoe says to her sister Kat: You can’t tell me what to do, you ain’t my mother!  And Kat shouts back to her:  Yes I am!  (quoted by Yorke in Into The Woods), or when Darth Vader says something similar to Luke Skywalker (quoted by one boy in the advert).

When you watch it again, you spot the ‘boys’ shadows, the glasses and watch… it’s all there if you care to look.  Perhaps you noticed it subconsciously the first time.

In another life, I’ve been involved in understanding human needstates – to connect with others in order to feel part of a group, or to escape to another world.  Television satisfies these needs well, but so do novels and films.  And some magazines.  But adverts only really pull off this trick when they are on TV.  It’s the visuals, and music, and who we are with when we watch them and the way they can catch us unaware. Robinson’s manage this here.  Unlike in Eastenders or Star Wars when we see the reveal, we suddenly become the dad or the son – what would it be like to be them and feel that?
And we want to watch the advert again, to spot the clues.

And there’s two other things.  Perhaps Robinsons is just a name.  But once upon a time there was a Robin, and his son was named after him. And it’s British owned, unpretentious and rather lovely. And frankly, given the amount of sugar (natural or otherwise) in orange juice or coke, I’d much rather give my children squash.

In the end, I can admire the craftsmanship that created this advert. But my brain is utterly distracted, remembering my father (who died 30 years ago this Friday), remembering my childhood (even longer gone), thinking about my parenting skills (ahem) and my children, and making a mental note to get some more Robinsons on my next shop.

Two children.  Drinking Robinsons.

Two children. Drinking Robinsons.