When I was a child, in the early eighties, we had just one entertainment device in our lounge: a television. Thirty years on, there are almost ten devices in our bourgeois, but very standard, living room. All of them there to do the exact same job, namely entertain us. We have the iPad, iPhones, laptops, kindle, PS3, DVD, DVR. And — oh yeah, I almost forgot — a TV set.
With all those options available, you would expect that by now the old TV set will be just a dust collecting ornament. But the surprising truth is the complete opposite, as shown by a sustainable growth in viewing. TV in 2012 is still, more than ever, where you see what will be discussed tomorrow morning at the water coolers.
The medium has pretty much stayed the same, but the experience it provides its consumers, the viewers, is totally different. It’s so different, that sometimes watching an old show, one that entertained millions back in the day, is like a visit to a museum for boredom.
TV has stopped treating its consumers as « viewers » and has started treating them as « witnesses » and at times, active witnesses. Unlike a mere viewer, a « witness » has a certain part to play in the event, sometimes even an active crucial role. Witnessing in itself has value, and the act of witnessing gives the witness an opportunity, even an obligation, to pass it on to their surroundings.
Witnessing demands a moment of change; altering reality is one way for viewing to become witnessing. The poor may becomes rich (Who Wants to be a Millionaire?), singles may turn into a couple (any dating show), fat turns thin (Biggest Loser) or sad becomes happy (any makeover show).
We are excited to witness the moment in a talent show when a not-so-attractive woman steps on stage, just as hundreds before her have. The judges give a skeptical look, she opens her mouth and… Susan Boyle is born. An entire nation has witnessed the birth of a star. There was no one watching it without feeling that they were experiencing a significant moment. A « WOW! » moment that changed history… or at least the way we look at talent shows.
In Western society, we occasionally need to stop the race towards individual comfort and personal success, and feel that we are a part of a group, imaginary and ad hoc as that group may be. A group that shares a special moment. In some countries, society is so fragmented that those moments are almost the only things that unite them.
This old truth is ten times more relevant today because of the contribution of the second screen and the catch-up services. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, these services made television stronger by allowing us to join the conversation even if we missed the live event. The outcome is that a « TV moment » now has a much larger impact.
Up until a few years ago, the audience was ok with the fact that « Witnessing moments » are rare and limited mainly to news broadcasts (« Where were you on 9/11? » « Where were you when you heard that Obama was elected? »)
Today, we expect to witness every night. We would be happy to witness an alien landing on live TV (and even happier if we are the first to tweet it), but are willing to settle for much less, and I’m talking about really very very little. TV manipulates viewers into believing some momenents are important, be it through sound effects, tears of children or celebrities, or simply by calling an episode the ‘Grand Finale’. Audiences becoming more and more aware of these manipulations, and now demand « the real deal » more often.
Maybe the most classic example is seeing the difference between Who Wants to be a Millionaire (launched in 1998) and The Million Pound Drop Live (launched in 2010). First of all, the name of the latter emphasises the live aspect, which makes it much more unpredictable; but the main difference is in the premise of the format. If in Millionaire, you had to wait almost two years to witness someone win a million dollars, in the Million Pound Drop, you witness contestants receive a million pounds at the beginning of every show.
Witnessing is so important, we are willing to sacrifice the whole evening plus watching tons of commercials just for one single moment: elimination, revelation or inspiration. A magical moment that we were witness to, and which took place in our living room.
The bottom line: TV is now adjusting, because our generation demands more in return for our time and concentration. What makes the difference is providing viewers with a sense of value, making them feel their time was not wasted, but rather that they witnessed something important, and that by witnessing it they are themselves a part of the story. One that will be relevant to our daily life, yet amplifies ten times the excitement and risks.
Not only that: we demand it at least once a night, and we demand it will shake our emotional state of mind, if by making us thrilled, laugh, scared or amazed; preferably all of the above. We’d like to feel that we witnessed a change, and by the end of the evening to feel as if we came out of a roller coaster.
An edit of this post was also published on The Huffington Post, here.