Watching TV – watch your language..

Eat_em_553788a I've been reading Tess Alps (CEO of the TV industry funded research agency Thinkbox) satisfied round up of TV viewing over the last decade – all the viewing figures are up.. and her predictions for the next 10 years  – more of the same.. and feeling guilty about a project I picked up in September about the monitoring of screen viewing which I still haven't found the time to take forward. So I thought I would just put a marker down here about the language we use about TV. Just like the word consumer (which I hate and try not to use – and would like to leave in the 1950s where it belongs) the word watching or viewing TV seems to me to be a dangerous hangover from a time when people were indeed glued to their sets.

Because increasingly I find myself in households where the TV is on but nobody is watching it. And so viewing figures are about as pointless as measuring exposures to reprints of Constable's Hay Wain stuck on living room walls. Yes a lot of the exposure is high definition so catches the eye. But it doesn't keep it. Television is often a flickering picture – and to demonstrate that it makes a commercial difference we need to demonstrate that the flickering picture does indeed have a commercial effect even when no one is waching (and why not?) and when attentive or engaged viewing is going on and what effect that has. That's why it is intellectually dishonest for the TV industry to deal with TV viewing as a category. You might as well measure the telephone industry for average minutes of telephone/mobile usage which doesn't tell us anything. There are lots of different ways of interacting with TV and 'viewing figures' need a way to tell us which types of interaction are growing or declining. 

Take last night for example when I went round to a friends for coffee:  3 screens on in the room. The teenager on the laptop with facebook (facing away from the telly I might add), the child on the DS (focussed not remotely distractable by anything), 3 adults having a conversation. And a dog needing some attention! And the TV itself (with the sound turned down). It is high time we stopped measuring media delivery but measured instead human activity and discourse and then working back to see to what extent media channels have been instrumental in stimulating it. Taking this kind of approach would cover old style media monitoring. But it would also have the integrity to note when media is having little or no effect. studies which note that the telly is on are easy to set up and prove very little.

This is analogous to using the Tesco Club Card database to monitor what people are buying and only then looking at media behaviour to see if there is any correlation. Because tracking how people consume media is notorious difficult to measure. Tracking human interaction is by contrast a lot easier – but frustrating for marketers because it will show how marginal most marketing activity is – people push it to the back of their lives and bring it out when they need to.

How do we research this? Through observation but we would observe the interaction between the people in the room and privilege this over the interaction between people and media delivery devices. What about solo media consumption? Are there statistics which measure the amount of solus versus group viewing? I wonder if this is something the TV industry bothers to track? I'll bet there's lots of research that counts the number of screens in the house. But that is not at all the same thing.

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