It was interesting watching my family watch the Oscars Sunday night. Given that I’m the father of two millennials, who have paired with their own respective millennials, you can bet that it was a multi-screen affair. But to be fair, they weren’t the only ones splitting their attention amongst the TV and various mobile devices. I was also screen hopping.
As Dave Morgan pointed out last week, media usage no longer equates to media opportunity. And it’s because the nature of our engagement has changed significantly in the last decade. Unfortunately, our ad models have been unable to keep up. What is interesting is the way our consumption has evolved. Not surprisingly, technology is allowing our entertainment consumption to evolve back to its roots. We are watching our various content streams in much the same way that we interact with our world. We are consuming in context.
The old way of watching TV was very linear in nature. It was also divorced from context. We suspended engagement with our worlds so that we could focus on the flickering screen in front of us. This, of course, allowed advertisers to buy our attention in little 30-second blocks. It was the classic bait and switch technique. Get our attention with something we care about, and then slip in something the advertiser cares about.
The reason we were willing to suspend engagement with the world was that there was nothing in that world that was relevant to our current task at hand. If we were watching Three’s Company, or the Moon Landing, or a streaker running behind David Niven at the 1974 Oscar ceremony, there was nothing in our everyday world that related to any of those TV events. Nothing competed for the spotlight of our attention. We had no choice but to keep watching the TV to see what happened next.
But imagine if a nude man suddenly appeared behind Matthew McConaughey at the 2015 Oscars. We would immediately want to know more about the context of what just happened. Who was it? Why did it happen? What’s the backstory? The difference is now, we have channels at our disposal to try to find answers to those questions. Our world now includes an extended digital nervous system that allows us to gain context for the things that happen on our TV screens. And because TV no longer has exclusive control of our attention, we switch to the channel that is the best bet to find the answers we seek.
That’s how humans operate. Our lives are a constant quest to fill gaps in our knowledge and by doing so, make sense of the world around us. When we become aware of one of these gaps we immediate scan our environment to find cues of where we might find answers. Then, our senses are focused on the most promising cues. We forage for information to satiate our curiosity. A single-minded focus on one particular cue, especially one over which we have no control, is not something we evolved to do. The way we watched TV in the 60s and 70s was not natural. It was something we did because we had no option.
Our current mode of splitting attention across several screens is much closer to how humans naturally operate. We continually scan our environment, which, in this case, included various electronic interfaces to the extended virtual world, for things of interest to us. When we find one, our natural need to make sense sends us on a quest for context. As we consume, we look for this context. The diligence of our quest for that context will depend on the degree of our engagement with the task at hand. If it is slight, we’ll soon move on to the next thing. If it’s deep, we’ll dig further.
On Sunday night, the Hotchkiss family quest for context continually skipped around, looking for what other movies J.K. Simmons had acted in, watching the trailer for Whiplash, reliving the infamous Adele Dazeem moment from last year and seeing just how old Benedict Cumberbatch is (I have two daughters that are hopelessly in love, much to the chagrin of their boyfriends). As much as the advertisers on the 88th Oscars might wish otherwise, all of this was perfectly natural. Technology has finally evolved to give our brain choices in our consumption.