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Shocking News: Choice Creates Shrinkage; Enter the Era of Comfort Viewing

Joe TV Viewer has more channels available to watch than ever before. But a new study has revealed that these options have pushed Joe into a kind of viewing retreat, since the percentage of those channels that Joe actually watches have declined. In fact, it fell to its lowest percentage ever…ever being 1980, which was when Nielsen began to track this data.

Joe TV Viewer has more channels available to watch than ever before. But a new study has revealed that these options have pushed Joe into a kind of viewing retreat, since the percentage of those channels that Joe actually watches have declined. In fact, it fell to its lowest percentage ever…ever being 1980, which was when Nielsen began to track this data.

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Here are the numbers: The average number of channels Joe could watch in 2007 was 118.6; the number Joe actually viewed was 16. That means only 13.5% of “viewable” channels were consumed, versus 15.1% in 2006, 16% in 2005 and 16.2%.

Why are we seeing this behavior? Joe Mandese, who writes for MediaPost, says: “The finding suggests that while the supply of media options is expanding, consumer attention may have reached its limits.

I disagree. The issue isn’t a cap on consumer attention, which suggests that we are suffering from a national case of ADD. I’ve heard that argument, but this data doesn’t bear it out. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite: If we were all so twitchy, we’d be tuning into more channels, not fewer, desperately seeking something to calm our pumping dopamine.

What’s happening, and what the data tantalizingly hints at, is that we’re becoming more attentive to what we already know. Meaning we’re becoming less curious, less willing to explore and experiment. Viewers are seeking comfort in the familiar, in fewer options, in a personally-constructed echo chamber.

A lot of this has been covered in Barry Schwartz’s prescient book, “The Paradox of Choice,” which is a must-read for anyone in the marketing business, where the secular consumer religion of option-proliferation is still a dominant belief system.

Too much choice can be destructive and paralytic. Yet at the same time, we know the consumer markets– including the entertainment side – are driven by novelty and newness. When we’re told to go out and spend our stimulus check at the mall, no one expects us to be buying yesterday’s product news. So how do we reconcile that dialectic?

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One argument is that lack of innovation has become a sad fact of life. Consumers expect little, being persistently abused and disappointed by the low quality crap out there (a deficit captured by Springsteen in his song “57 Channels (and nothin’ on)” — back when 57 channels actually seemed like a lot. Expecting more of the same, they don’t even bother to seek out new options.

Another hypothesis is that cable TV fails in its stunning inability to offer a simple and engaging discovery platform. If I want to find something new to watch – vs. the channels I habitually frequent – I have to go to a programming menu that is ugly, noisy and dysfunctional. It’s a horrific failure as a tool for exploration. It’s a dis-incentive, in fact, to the journey forward… It’s a suppressant to our natural inclination to newness.

Cable TV isn’t alone in its failure to present choice in the right way. How confusing is the taxonomy of cell phones and cell phone plans out there? Pizza Hut offers five signature crusts, seven meat toppings and nine vegetable toppings – and that’s just in their pizza menu.

Even Apple, who is fanatic about user experience, is pushing against the strakes of over-complication with their explosion of iTouch, iPhone and iPod alternatives.

This is a cautionary tale from Nielsen. Consumers represent more than 60 percent of the U.S. economy. It needs to grow for us to be able afford oil at $139 a barrel, and simply piling on new cable channels, new products, endless line extensions, and new software releases in a wild anabolic frenzy isn’t going to do the trick.

If you’re in this marketing game, you’ve got start focusing more on how you present options to consumers. We can’t just crowd the market with stuff. We can’t assume, as we do, that consumers are willing to work at deciphering the impenetrable hieroglyphics we use to differentiate our products, brands and offerings.

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We need to start thinking of ourselves as agents of discovery. If not, we’re going to wake up pretty soon and discover ourselves in a world of pain.

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About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies

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