The Clock

Respect the Clock!*

(* Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia)

Our lives follow a careful rhythm. Although humans feel themselves to be terribly independent of mind, and advanced in lifestyle, our lives tend to follow a pattern that is repeated each day.  And while these patterns are almost universal, we don’t know that much about them: the value of sleep, the impact of light on our body and the deeper circadian rhythms that affect us every hour…  ‘Circadian Rhythms’ sound like a band appearing at WOMAD, or something on sale in a homeopathy clinic.  But they are the natural biological processes that we all go through every 24 hours, related to light, night and sleep.  We don’t tend to notice these unless we quickly travel a long way east or west so that our relationship with these rhythms is suddenly out of sync and we suffer from jet lag.  But they affect our mood, our temperature, our digestive system, our libido and much more.  We have in-built expectations about what happens at each hour.

Behavioural economists now understand the difference between considered thought – the decisions we take after evaluating options – and the reflex thoughts and behaviours which happen automatically.  The television programmes we choose to watch are affected deeply by the time of day that they appear.  They fit into the rhythms of our lives – the physical, social, and emotional rhythms – that are core to the way we live.

I became fascinated by this topic because I worked for many years in international television, in which programmes are broadcast to millions of people spread across the world each in different time-zones.  This created practical difficulties, (such as the challenge of producing a compelling news bulletin to hit the peak times in America, but when it was 3am in the studio in London.  The overnight editorial team are like astronauts in an International Space Centre orbiting in a zone beyond the normal clock).  But the broader problem is that programmes that audiences need at 7am are different from those at 10pm. And between 7pm and 10pm.  The channel couldn’t talk about what the time was in London, because it would create a sense of being distant, with the result that programmes emerged as if from a place sitting outside the daily rhythm.   And since we couldn’t refer on screen to it being the evening, or the weekend, or late night (or whenever) we lost the emotional weight and meaning that these words convey.

In my frustration, I even suggested in a memo that we:

Create our own time system like those folks on Star Trek (Stardate 2046), I propose ‘Beeb O’clock.  It is the same Beeb Hour everywhere in the world at the same time – might take a while to get used to.

One change that was agreed was that when showing live pictures from a particular location (the US stock Exchange, a press conference in Egypt, a reporter speaking live from Beijing), we would show what the local time was in the corner of the screen. This helped to anchor the viewers by giving them a sense of place, a sense of liveness, or nowness, and a valuable geography lesson.  It was something of a logistical problem (curse you, bi-annual time-changes...), but I was very proud of this research-led innovation.

This may have helped, but the advantages are still with those national TV channels that have a clear schedule that is in sync with the viewers.  BBC News channel is very successful but on a typical day it still attracts fewer viewers than the single 6’clock news on BBC1. Channels such as Discovery and MTV show many excellent programmes, but they struggle against a sense that programmes will be repeated and that there is no particular need to watch one now.

I believe that Channel 4’s decision to launch a time-shift channel which shuffles up its programmes and repeats them (Channel 4seven) will reduce the overall audience because it stops the channel from sealing the deal with viewers there and then.  Audiences know they’ll get a chance to watch later, but hardly any do so (4Seven is currently attracting about a 30th of Channel 4’s audience).  Even the +1 channels have tiny audiences, offering little incremental audience to the main channel Channel4+1 has 7% of Channel 4’s audience, while ITV+1 adds 6% to that of ITV1.  Channel 5+1 (7%) does no better.

As for the proportion of TV viewing on mobile devices… fuggedabahdit.  When I was at ITV we once tried to decide whether to integrate the audience figures for the programmes on television with the figures from audiences viewing online. But the latter were so small compared with the former that it seemed a pointless exercise.

And yet we often now hear about the death of the channel, and the death of the schedule.  Linear TV is seen as a dinosaurish concept akin to the VCR, to be banished by a new generation watching what they want, when they want from a menu.  The perfect storm of arguments against linearity include the personalisation of behaviour, technological advances, the growth of pvrs and mobile, the primacy of choice, the savviness of youngsters and the consumer desire for control.  Many of these are internet-based arguments which are being applied to television despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Or it’s people looking at what happened to the music industry and predicting the same for TV.  But music and TV aren’t the same.

We often look at television viewing in isolation.  But I believe that understanding why we watch the television we do, at the times we do, with the people we do tells us a great deal about who we are as humans. What are our fundamental needs and motivations and how do they play out in our relationship with the TV.  How have our lives been affected by the power of the TV schedule?

Many of the posts on my blog page refer to the needs of audience members, and the way successful programmes tap into them.  A core part of this is time based.  The overpowering importance of time


‘I’ve been lying wide awake, paralyzed by the buzzing of the television’, Courtesy of Nicole Motta.