Only 2 Ways to Watch TV

The Only Two Ways People Watch TV

March 2nd, 2012 by Jeremy Toeman

Over the past 30 years we’ve evolved the television experience from something where everybody watched the same shows on the same channels on the same devices in the same rooms at the same time to a world where that’s almost never the case.  Today, with the exception of appointment TV, it’s such a fragmented landscape that it’s almost a challenge to find other people watching the same stuff you do.  But with all the variance in content, services, devices, location, price, etc, there’s still really only two ways people choose to watch TV.  This is a subtle, but extremely important concept to anyone in the business of changing television.

Deliberate viewing: you go to the TV with a specific piece of content in mind.  This includes live TV (“let’s watch Idol at 8pm tonight”), your DVR (“I need to watch last night’s 30 Rock”), and any VOD/OTT platform such as Comcast OnDemand, Netflix, Hulu, etc (“I’m going to watch the first season of Breaking Bad”).  We could also include a deliberate type of content in this category (“I’m going to watch a comedy” – not necessarily something you’d say out loud, but if you are in the mood for something funny, that’s a pretty deliberate concept).  I also refer to deliberate viewing as “search mode” for TV, since you will specifically search for the piece of content you want, whether by changing the channel, navigating your OnDemand menu, or going to your DVR library.

Random viewing: you go to the TV with no idea what you want to watch.  This includes simple channel surfing (“nope, next!”) as well as direct channel changing (“I wonder if anything good is on TNT now.  Maybe Shawshank or Blues Brothers??”).  It also includes browsing the OnDemand options (“I wonder if there’s anything new on Netflix?”) and even your DVR (“Maybe we recorded something we haven’t watched yet?”).  I also refer to random viewing as “browse mode” for TV, since you are just perusing lists of stuff until you find something you are content to watch.  Note the last phrasing here, as random viewing is less about the “excitement” factor of watching something deliberately, and more about the “good enough to pass the time” factor, with the potential for excitement.

Now for the cold, hard fact: any “future TV” service or product which doesn’t account for both types of TV viewing, will fail. This includes OTT services, smart TV apps, second screen apps, third screen apps, eighth screen apps, widgets, websites, gadgets, platforms, and everything else under the hood.  Again, if you cannot service both primary needs of a viewing audience, your system is a goner – unless, that is, you are specifically aiming to replace an existing component of those services (in other words – if your live TV service is designed to replace another live TV service, that’s viable, since the consumer’s ecosystem will still include whatever else it had before).

How do I back this up without cold, hard facts?  Because people don’t really change much, and TV, specifically, is not merely “another” activity up there with Angry Birds, Facebook, Pinterest, reading books, etc.  Watching TV is a very specific type of activity, one about entertainment and more importantly, escape.  Life is hard, TV lets you escape for a period of your day – why on earth would Americans spend 4-8 HOURS per day in front of it otherwise?

So if people don’t change, and people need escape (especially as they age – I’m not talking about 13 year olds here, for the most part), they need some version of deliberate and random lean back TV watching.  Could this include YouTube videos? Sure. How about an all-on demand lineup?  Doubtful.  How about a “TV is just an app” concept? Doubtful. It’s why most cord-cutting theories aren’t holding water.  It’s why #SocialTV is still mostly just a fad. It’s why most “second screen” apps are just barely gaining traction. It’s why Google TV is such a mess right now.  It’s why Apple TV is still a hobby.  Sure, these things work absolutely great for some, but absolutely don’t for most.

The future of TV involves a lot of change.  And the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Long live TV.

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