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24 May 2008

Revolutionary Revelations

Web users 'getting more selfish', sez the Beeb. Apparently it is very selfish of internet users to not faff around playing with the widgets, pop-ups and other gadgets placed by marketeers and web designers to get them to hang around for longer on a website, preferring to give up and try the next site Google suggests if the first one doesn't deliver the goods. To me, that sounds about as selfish as skipping to the next channel on TV if the current programme doesn't interest, educate or entertain, i.e. not very selfish at all. The Beeb goes on:

Most [users] ignore efforts to make them linger and are suspicious of promotions designed to hold their attention. Instead, many are "hot potato" driven and just want to get a specific task completed.

And this is a bad thing? I suppose that if Jakob Nielsen, who conducted the research that led to these conclusions, had it his way, we would all spend our entire lives surfing the internet not just to obtain some information, communicate with a friend or any of the other "task-based" activities people often carry out online, but browsing every last section of every last website. How healthy... Anyway, as with crap TV shows leading to people channel surfing, surely the really selfish people are the marketeers who are trying to distract people from doing things they actually want to do and trick them into doing things the marketeers themselves would like them to do. I guess the marketeers have to learn that if they want people to do what the marketeers want them to do, they will usually have to make it so that people can also accomplish the original tasks they intended to complete, while at the same time clicking on the related ad links, paying for a ring tone download, signing up for an e-newsletter, or the like.

I recently read David Weinberger's excellent book, Everything is Miscellaneous, which says just the opposite: that the democratisation of the internet has given people the power to cut out all of the irrelevant background noise and instead get straight to the important, relevant information. Some TV shows interest me, for example, but I never graze in front of the TV just for the sake of having it on - it suits me far better to be able to watch any given TV show, online, at a convenient time, without having to watch the adverts or the surrounding programmes. If, then, I am going to spend time on a website, then it must benefit me in some way - either it contains some information I need and for which I was searching, or it has to be interesting, well written or otherwise worth my while reading (although to be fair, even then, I'm far more likely to bung it in Google Reader than to visit it on a regular basis - I am an advertiser's nightmare).

Sometimes it is disturbing how dinosaur-like people can be with their attitudes to advances in technology, communications and the entertainment industry. Take Gossip Girl, which is an immensely popular show with millions of viewers. However, most of these viewers don't watch it in its Monday at 8 p.m. slot on the CW in front of their TVs, and so the show's ratings are dire, even among the target, 16-24 year-old, female audience. This was what brought about the demise of The O.C. (also produced by Josh Schwartz) and led to its cancellation - not enough people were watching and so Fox axed it.

GG
had the advantage of being several years later than The O.C. and so as well as being a lot edgier, its fans were also a lot keener to watch it online. At first the CW embraced this and even made episodes available on its website after they had aired on TV. However, the network executives soon decided that putting these episodes online was the reason their ratings were so dire. The writers' strike provided a few months of hiatus for the network execs to put their thinking caps on and to try to save GG's ratings. Their solution? Stop putting the episodes online and be far more vigilant about removing episodes posted by users on Veoh, SideReel and YouTube. Because of course if people can't watch a show online, they will obviously sit down in front of their TV at a given time, on a given day of the week to watch it. Or not... Serious error, there, CW.

What the execs failed to realise was that the fans of GG had already evolved. They were all a part of the net-generation and they didn't want to be told by old, rich people when they had to watch their favourite shows, so of course, what happened was that the fans either got sneakier about uploading and watching episodes of GG online or they just thought, "well, screw GG, then, I'll go and watch a show that is available online."

Still, for now, GG has a happy ending: it was one of the first shows on the CW to get picked up for another season and it will be back on screens for 24 episodes, from September. The net-gen are really screwing up the decisions made by network executives as to which shows will live to see another season and which will be canned. Because if the traditional ratings - calculated based on the viewings by those randomly selected households with the gadget that records their viewing habits, which have been used to measure a show's success and importance for decades - don't provide an accurate picture of which shows people are watching or how and when they are watching them, then how the hell do they decide which shows to promote and which to kill?

Three years ago - or maybe even more recently - GG would probably have suffered the same fate as The O.C.; now, it is being granted a reprieve, although how will the CW executives justify another season if the TV ratings remain so low (which they will)? Ultimately, they and Jakob Nielsen and all of the internet marketeers will come to learn that top-down is not how it works any more; they can no longer decide how, where or for how long people do things, and scary as that may be for them, they are going to have to get used to it. Or go the same way as The O.C. - or the CD, for that matter. Vive le pouvoir du peuple.

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