Tapping out an age-old rhythm

Television:  The Entrainment Medium

Entrainment: Circadian rhythms, sleep patterns, social lives and TV schedules

If you’ve just returned from a holiday in a distant land, you may be suffering from the unpleasant effect of jet-lag.  It’s not a new thing (well, 50 years or so, since trans-continental flights … took off), but we are now starting to understand how the body-clock works.  This section of the website is all about the same body clock effects when we watch television, what we watch and why.

There has been a minor explosion in the science of sleep.  Some years ago, Russell Foster and Leon Kreitzman wrote about the natural rhythms that drive us each day, and the impact of ‘circadian rhythms’.   These sound like a band appearing at WOMAD, or something on sale in a homeopathy clinic.  But circadian rhythms 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, and our relationship with the clock changes.

Russell Foster: co-author of The Rhythms of Life

More recently, Till Roenneburg followed up with ‘Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag and Why You Are So Tired‘.  He argues that despite some of us being morning people (larks) and others evening people (owls), we are all forced by social convention to turn up to work at the same time.  He believes that the human clock which affects our mood, energy, alertness, digestion, sexual appetite and more, is influenced more by the sun than by what we are doing – getting up, eating, and work hours – our social clock.

These books aren’t merely about something interesting – they argue that these rhythms should not be ignored when their impact can be profound.  For instance doctors prescribe or administer drugs without considering that when they are taken will affect their efficacy.  We know that blood clots more quickly in the morning, so that’s fine if you cut yourself shaving, but less helpful if you have a dodgy ticker – heart attacks are 30% more frequent in the morning as a result.   It’s a science based update of the idea from Koyaanisqatsi that modern life has pushed us out of our natural state into a chaotic existence.

(And then there’s this new book by David Randall all about sleep – what is going on when we are in dreamland.   If you don’t get enough sleep, you will suffer.  I haven’t read this one).

Circadian Rhythms. The work was done with Inkscape by YassineMrabet
See Wikipedia…


The Entrainment Medium

I’m less interested in sleep than I am in television.  I believe that the television schedule is another form of clock, running alongside the Circadian clock and our social clock.  And that a process of entrainment has taken place.  Entrainment is when two separate rhythms become synchronised – in this case the bodily rhythm and the social one.  The television schedule has a role in bringing these together.

Many plants grow taller when they can lean against a structure. The TV schedule works this way too, ‘training’ programmes and viewers

Although we modern sophisticated humans often feel more independent minded than in the past- more autonomous in terms of our ideas, religious beliefs, travel and lifestyle – we are often quite fixed in our behaviour.  We go to bed at around the same time.  We like to eat at certain times.

(Virgin Atlantic used to allow passengers to eat when they wanted on long-haul flights – which makes sense for the nomadic elite,  who are masters of their own domain.  But it always seemed to me that they tended to all eat together anyway).

In the world of television, the provision of programmes to a published schedule has been supplemented by viewers able to time-shift their programmes with PVR/Tivo/SkyPlus and Virgin’s On Demand Service.  And one often hears about children who never watch programmes when they air, only from menus.  It is often argued that consumers are throwing off the yoke of following a published schedule and that broadcasters will be forced to become publishers.

It is, however, a central thesis of this website, that these forecasts are overrated.  Time-shifted viewing may well increase, but it is currently a tiny fraction of viewing.  Moreover, the original airtime, like a movie certificate, is an important signal towards the content.  And, while we might never watch a particular programme when it airs, the position in the schedule matters in terms of generating word of mouth and other effects.   I hardly ever watch Pointless at 5.15, but knowing that it’s an afternoon programme affects how I feel about it – my expectations and enjoyment.

Anyone who has tried to grow tomatoes, or sweet peas (or honeysuckle for that matter.  Or clematis…) knows that these plants respond to being next to a stick or vertical string, perhaps tied to it.  (My first ever job was at a tomato nursery in Sussex, earning 25 pence an hour, and involved connecting the plants to string trainers in the greenhouse).  Without it, they become stunted, or fall over.    The TV schedule acts like a training structure for programmes, and an entraining device for our behaviour, helping programmes to grow fruitfully, and shaping our lives.

An extreme case of a plant being trained up a chimney. Think of a great night of television. This is a metaphor

Bloody weeds. Still, you get the idea. Ladder = TV schedule. Weed = viewers. Not that viewers are weeds – they’re flowers. Flowers like honeysuckle AND like rivers flowing…

So what does this mean for programmes and viewers

It means that the TV programmes at certain times of day are different to others.  The news bulletins at 7am, 1pm, 6pm and 10pm are all different.  Audience needs are different at each time.  Quiz programmes work very well at 5 pm but not at 10pm.  Soap operas make sense at 7 or 8 o’clock.  It’s not that humans are following TV rhythms, it’s TV that has adapted to ours.  Music on TV has become sadder because our needs at midnight (for something nostalgic and emotion-provoking) are different from those at 7pm (something lively and fun).

The desire to watch programmes with other people (at home, or nationally) – the way that this creates a live event out of a recorded one – is so powerful, that it represents the chimney in the picture to the right – taking audiences to dizzying heights.

The only programmes capable of shifting this are sport, where international competition and the prize of liveness are so powerful.

(Related rhythms mean that programmes work on certain days of the week…  but that’s another story.)

So, for all the ease of time-shifting, the way our children (bless them) ignore schedules, and the rise of box-sets, the schedule is here to stay.  It’s television’s killer app, which is ignored at its peril.

By comparison, the internet seems to struggle with time: apart from newness, and nowness, it lacks a temporal context – it isn’t entrained to our human rhythms and suffers as a result.


There will be more on this, in due course.


Sometimes I should provide some data.  The good people at Thinkbox had produced a handy chart which demonstrates the power of the schedule.  Even in homes with the means to time-shift their programmes, only 15% of viewing isn’t ‘live’.  And viewing of TV programmes via a computer or tablet is not only vanishingly small, but barely growing. In America viewing of TV other than on a TV set is just 2% of total viewing, and time shifting is the same as in the UK.  And yet, the people you meet, who swear that they never watch live TV…



And the afternoon embraces you like a million worried hands
And I want to look forward go discover foreign land
In the mirror I was balancing on tiny strings
It looks silly but oh really it’s just a physical thing

First Aid Kit:  Sailor Song.  May or may not be about TV schedules and training plants.


James and Bobby Purify:  I’m Your Puppet.   So the TV schedule is like a puppet, responding to the needs of viewers and the strings are the … read the piece..


Breathe to the rhythm, Dance to the rhythm, Work to the rhythm, Live to the rhythm, Love to the rhythm, Slave to the rhythm.

Watch television to a rhythm






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