Blipverts vs the Attention Economy

There’s a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, where David Bowie’s character sits watching a bank of TV screens, each tuned to a different station. At the same time he is channel surfing – either because his alien powers allow him to absorb multiple, simultaneous inputs, or because his experience of ennui on Earth leads him to seek more and more stimulus. Obviously a metaphor for the attention economy, long before such a term existed.

Watching the alien watching us… Image sourced from Flicker

At the time in the UK, we only had three TV channels to choose from, so the notion of 12 or more seemed exotic, even other worldly. And of those three channels, only one carried advertising. Much the same situation existed in British radio, with only one or two commercial networks, alongside the dominant BBC. So we had relatively little exposure to adverts, brand sponsorship or paid content in our broadcast media. (Mind you, this was still the era when tobacco companies could plaster their logos all over sporting events…)

For all its limitations, there were several virtues to this model. First, advertising airtime was at a premium (thanks to the broadcast content ratios), and ad spend was concentrated – so adverts really had to grab your attention. (Is it any wonder that so many successful film directors cut their teeth on commercials?) Second, this built-in monopoly often meant bigger TV production budgets, more variety of content and better quality programming on free-to-air networks than we typically see today with the over-reliance on so-called reality TV. Third, with less viewing choice, there was a greater shared experience among audiences – and more communal connection because we could talk about similar things.

Then along came cable and satellite networks, bringing more choice (and more advertising), but not necessarily better quality content. In fact, with TV advertising budgets spread more thinly, it’s not surprising that programming suffered. Networks had to compete for our attention, and they funded this by bombarding us with more ads and more paid content. (And this is before we even get to the internet age and time-shift, streaming and multicast platforms…)

Despite the increased viewing choices, broadcasting became narrow-casting – smaller and more fractured viewership, with programming appealing to niche audiences. Meanwhile, in the mid-80s (and soon after the launch of MTV), “Max Headroom” is credited with coining the term “blipvert”, meaning a very, very short (almost subliminal) television commercial. Although designed as a narrative device in the Max Headroom story, the blipvert can be seen as either a test of creativity (how to get your message across in minimal time); or a subversive propaganda technique (nefarious elements trying to sabotage your thinking through subtle suggestion and infiltration).

Which is essentially where we are in the attention economy. Audiences are increasingly disparate, and the battle for eyeballs (and minds) is being fought out across multiple devices, multiple screens, and multiple formats. In our search for more stimulation, and unless we are willing to pay for premium services and/or an ad-free experience, we are having to endure more ads that pop-up during our YouTube viewing, Spotify streaming or internet browsing. As a result, brands are trying to grab our attention, at increasing frequency, and for shorter, yet more rapid and intensive periods. (Even Words With Friends is offering in-game tokens in return for watching sponsored content.)

Some consumers are responding with ad-blockers, or by dropping their use of social media altogether; or they want payment for their valuable time. I think we are generally over the notion of giving away our personal data in return for some “free” services – the price in terms of intrusions upon our privacy is no longer worth paying. So, brands are having to try harder to capture our attention, and they need to personalize their message to make it seem relevant and worthy of our time – provided we are willing to let them know enough about our preferences, location, demographics, etc. so that they can serve up relevant and engaging content to each and every “audience of one”. And brands also want proof that the ads they have paid for have been seen by the people they intended to reach.

This delicate trade-off (between privacy, personalisation and payment) is one reason why the attention economy is seen as a prime use case for Blockchain and cryptocurrency: consumers can retain anonymity, while still sharing selected personal information (which they own and control) with whom they wish, when they wish, for as long as they wish, and they can even get paid to access relevant content; brands can receive confirmation that the personalised content they have paid for has been consumed by the people they intended to see it; and distributed ledgers can maintain a record of account and send/receive payments via smart contracts and digital wallets when and where the relevant transactions have taken place.

Next week: Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

 

 

 

 

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…