Embracing the obsessives

Broadly, a subject has three types of audience: uninterested, interested, and obsessive. There are probably nuances here and Gartner would undoubtedly conjure up a four-quadrant chart and charge you several grand for it, but humans like things in threes so that’s where I’m going.

Each of us occupies one of these roles for a subject (the role might change over time). I count hate as interested: you have an opinion. I’m uninterested in Eastenders; I’m interested in X Factor (I want to kill it with fire); I’m obsessed with the Olympics.

Where this gets interesting is how these partitions are considered by content producers.

In almost all cases, newspapers and TV news programmes aim at the interested, ignoring obsessives and uninteresteds.

Consider TV news coverage of football. It assumes you follow the game — it never explains offside, or the league format (unless it changes), so it’s not for the uninterested. It doesn’t have three people arguing over the merits of a free kick, so it’s not obsessive either.

It’s similar with economics: if you don’t understand what GDP actually means (as opposed to the acronym’s expansion), you’re out of luck. But I bet economists regularly scream “it’s not as simple as that!” at the screen. The uninterested and the obsessive aren’t the targets.

The exceptions in news programming seem to be with science and to a lesser extent technology. With coverage of space exploration and physics, the target seems to be the uninterested almost exclusively. Mars is described as the fourth rock from the sun, cold, etc, almost every time, and Higgs is “the so-called God particle”.

Imagine if BBC News said: “Today in the Premier League, which is the richest and most important football league in England, the Liverpool FC club, which plays at a large stadium called Anfield…”

Producers might argue their coverage is as deep as the audience’s knowledge, and the audience knows more about football than about Mars. True, up to a point: but I think the audience knows far less about economics (and politics) than correspondents assume.

With science, it seems the interested and obsessive audiences are deliberately left adrift. The recent coverage of Neil Armstrong’s death was mostly lightweight, and the BBC’s online obituary leads with this excruciating paragraph:

In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon and arguably the most famous man in the Universe.

As Wikipedia would say: citation needed.

Even a specialist, nominally interested-aimed show like Horizon often fails: there’s too much enforced drama, and the target appears to be someone who progressed only recently from uninterested. I can’t help but think this reflects the status of the production team.

The obsessive science audience is today not considered at all on TV, with the possible exception of The Sky At Night. I think this is very much down to its longevity and to Patrick Moore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, once he leaves us, the show is quietly shelved as “coming to a natural end”.

Earlier in the year Professor Brian Cox gave a televised lecture on quantum theory. At last, I thought: targeting the high-end interested and the obsessive. And yet, amidst the actual science, there had to be celebrity involvement — Jonathan Ross doing maths, etc. I can picture the production meetings, where confused barely interested TV bods desperately tried to drag the target towards them.

A journalist I follow on Twitter was nevertheless confused by the lack of footage of Cox silhouetted by sunsets and wondered in a tweet whether he had now jumped the shark. I gave her the 140-character version of this post. She didn’t reply.

Irritatingly TV can cater for obsessives. The Big Brother auxiliary shows (such as Big Brother’s Little Brother and its Desmondesque successor on Channel 5) and similar spin-offs are targeted at hard-core fans. And for this year’s Olympics the BBC provided, for no additional cost, up to twenty-four channels of uninterrupted sport. If you wanted fencing prelims, you could watch them (and you still can, until January). BBC1 and BBC3 dipped around, catering for the interested with blanket coverage. (The uninterested had the even-numbered channels.)

The medium that has embraced the obsessives like no other is the internet, of course. (There are obsessive magazines too, like Maximum Carp and Carpology and so on, but the net out-obsesses these comfortably.)

Which brings me back to to Mars.

The seven minutes of terror before Curiosity’s touchdown were just before 6.30am UK time. The interested might’ve watched BBC News in the hope of some coverage. I’m an obsessive and watched NASA TV online, which showed the action from the control room live. Even this, annoyingly, cut away later to clumsy interviews, when all I wanted to do was listen to the mission control loop. (That was available on the net, Roger told me later. He’s a hardcore obsessive.)

But NASA’s usually great at cultivating obsessives. I can watch and listen in to Curiosity briefings and teleconferences live, uninterrupted by a journalist talking over the science. The Curiosity team also took part in a Reddit AMA that produced a bunch of intelligent, occasionally high-end obsessive questions.

Does it matter that mainstream TV doesn’t cater for science obsessives? I don’t know. I’d like to think it matters. The BBC argues that BBC1 and BBC2 have a general remit, and then dedicates sixteen days of BBC1 6am-1am to sport for the Olympics. Is it too much to ask for an hour of proper, obsessive science a week? A month?

But then, I’d probably have read it on the internet already.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Embracing the obsessives

  1. Roger

    One effect you’ve missed is second screen – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_screen

    With broadcast TV everyone has to watch the same thing. With second screen it is possible to capture and improve the experience for other parts of the audience. And that experience can be self directed. Of course every broadcast company is trying to get in on the act, and most screw it up badly, but it doesn’t matter that much since the viewer is in charge.

    BTW I only found out about the mission only loop from either Hacker News or Reddit, and that was because I was watching the NASA main coverage with a second screen open.

    Perhaps old fogeys like yourself haven’t picked up on the whole second screen lifestyle. After all there are two kinds of people – those born before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and those born after :-)

    • You’re right, second screen is an interesting development. The BBC are experimenting here – trying to take the Red Button interactive experience to another level.

      But I suspect the official second-screen alternatives aren’t going to do more than offer bells and whistles of varying sophistication. Plonking coloured film over Space Invaders didn’t make it colour, and adding stats to a sports broadcast doesn’t make it target obsessives. Partially this is cost/benefit, partially it’s because the second screen cannot subtract anything from the main screen, and partially it’s because a whole chunk of the industry still thinks adding a Twitter client to a TV is a pretty neat idea.

      The best second-screen experience I’ve had is, bizarrely, watching the Eurovision Song Contest with Twitter open. And the second screen was the TV, not the computer screen.

      • Roger

        My point is also that the second screen content doesn’t have to come from the provider of the first screen content, although it is theirs to lose. For example you could have a site dedicated to football newcomers whose content complements the main screen coverage in exactly the way you mentioned. The main screen coverage is probably best targeted at perpetual intermediates with other ends of the spectrum covered on the second screen.

        On DVDs we’ve also had something similar where you could turn on additional information while watching, and sometimes diversions like extra angles.

        Another approach is show things multiple times. For example you can watch the Tour de France live, see an hour or two condensed daily coverage, or just get 30 minutes of the daily highlights. I believe you already get this sort of thing with Qi and HIGNFY.

        The interesting question in all this is how the business model works as someone has to pay for second screen content, and the providers of the first screen are probably a little hostile to others “complementing” their coverage.

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