Peter Fincham says the “quick bite” theory of human attention spans leaves a lot to be desired
February 2004, and the half-time entertainment at the Super Bowl in Houston Texas becomes notorious for a fleeting moment in which Justin Timberlake exposes one of Janet Jackson’s breasts. A new phrase enters the language – wardrobe malfunction. 143million viewers get to see the offending nipple, but three nerdy computer types who work for PayPal are busy that evening. They miss the notorious moment. Discussing this soon afterwards, they realise there’s something missing on the internet – a handy site for uploading and viewing short-form videos. A year later, they launch YouTube. Less than 18 months after that, they sell it to Google for $1.65billion.
YouTube was the Covid-19 of its day – it spread at an exponential rate, rapidly went global, and before long we couldn’t imagine a world before it came along. I was working at the BBC at the time, and we all wondered if it represented an existential threat to television life as we knew it. Not to mention our jobs. After all, it didn’t require commissioners, budgets, regulators or producers. All you needed was to upload a 30-second clip of a cat slipping on a banana skin and wait for it go – new word at the time – “viral”. The old ratings system of measuring viewers gave way to a new one, where you measured views. It all seemed so simple.
Why was YouTube such a success? Lots of reasons – good technology, perfect timing, catchy name. The nerdy types got it right and got their due rewards in Google stock. Fifteen years later, if you don’t mind seeing Janet Jackson’s blink-and-you-miss-it breast in grainy standard definition, it’s still there clocking up views on YouTube. The mission succeeded.
Around this time, an idea took hold that has never really gone away, which is that in a busy world, where we’re rushing around doing this and that, our attention spans are getting steadily shorter. Has anyone time to watch, say, full-length documentaries on serious subjects? Aren’t we all suffering from attention deficit disorder, flicking relentlessly through our phones in search of the latest sensation on TikTok? Does Instagram rule out lives?
Maybe. Certainly this must have been the thinking that led the redoubtable Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks, to put his weight behind a bright new idea called Quibi. Quibi’s mission was to deliver A-list talent and production values in programmes that lasted about 10 minutes. It was custom-designed for the short attention span world. The idea was that you could enjoy a quick bite (quick bite – Quibi – get it?) of your favourite series at the bus stop.
Unlike YouTube, Quibi went big from the outset. With such muscle behind it, few would have bet against its success. An initial $1billion of funding was raised from the major studios and later on a further $750million. It launched with huge fanfare on 7 April this year… and was closed down a couple of weeks ago. Essentially, it’s gone bust.
Quibi burned through £1.75billion in seven months, and YouTube was sold for £1.65billion after 18 months. Interesting symmetry. So why was Quibi a failure? Obviously, the timing wasn’t great, coming a couple of months after the arrival of a global pandemic. The idea of providing entertainment to people while they were waiting for the bus wasn’t ideal when most of us weren’t taking the bus anyway. And besides, if the bus is running late there’s always YouTube to look at. Or Instagram. Or Facebook. Or Twitter. We’re pretty well served for distractions.
But the underlying theory, that our attention spans are getting shorter, is where it really comes unstuck. Because there’s plenty of evidence that points in exactly the opposite direction. Fifteen years ago we’d never heard of the box set, or of binge-viewing. If we were fans of a drama series, we would typically watch an hour of it at 9pm on a Sunday night, then wait a whole week (would you believe it?!) to watch another hour. This is like going to Waterstone’s to buy a novel, only to be told that you can have 50 pages now and another 50 pages in a week’s time. Yes yes yes, we all know that’s how Dickens’ novels were originally published, but those were days when children were put up chimneys. We’ve moved on.
This approach to scheduling is still the basis of linear channels, and occasionally the newer entrants, the streaming services, copy it. I’ve been watching an excellent thriller on Apple TV+ called Tehran. For some reason Apple have decided to put out one episode per week, and on Friday afternoon I get a notification on my iPhone (launched a couple of years after YouTube, by the way – the tectonic plates were really shifting in the second half of the 2000s) telling me that the next episode is ready to view. Sounds like a clever marketing gimmick but to be honest it’s annoying – every Friday, I spend the first 10 minutes trying to remember whether the agent from Mossad has been kidnapped, or had their cover blown, or turned out to be working for the Revolutionary Guard all along.
The same thing applies with The Undoing, a gripping new series on Sky Atlantic. As I write this, only one episode has gone out and I’m left wondering why on earth Hugh Grant lied to Nicole Kidman about that oncology conference in Cleveland. Like a spoiled toddler I expect to be able to find out RIGHT NOW, by pressing “Next episode” rapidly followed by “Skip intro”. (Why do people still spend fortunes making those glossy title sequences, by the way? Does anybody watch them?)
Now of course you could argue that deferred gratification is good for us. The spoiled toddler needs to be taught a lesson, and – as I can still remember from the tea parties of my own childhood – the cream cakes taste all the better when you have to eat the paste sandwiches first. I can see some merit in this. It’s a point I used to advance myself when talking about Broadchurch, the crime drama that played to enormous audiences when I was at ITV. At the time, I was defending an old world order against a new world order that had parked its tanks on our lawn – Netflix. Broadchurch was a big success, and I liked to say it was partly because you couldn’t skip ahead and had to wait a week for the next episode.
But did I really believe it? The truth is that, when given the option, it’s perfectly clear how we behave as viewers. If there’s something we like we’ll watch lots of it, sometimes up to four or five episodes a night, to the exclusion of everything else. Not so much a balanced diet as a mono-diet. Pizza followed by more pizza. Next month, the fourth series of the The Crown drops on Netflix, neatly timed to bridge that depressing gap between the clocks going back and Christmas. How many of us will binge on it over the opening weekend? Lots, I suspect, and maybe we’ll watch more episodes than we’re happy to admit when we go to work on Monday morning. (Assuming, that is, we go to work these days.)
There’s something guilt-inducing about having too much of a good thing. And of course too many cream cakes can make you feel queasy. But whether or not it’s a good thing isn’t really the point. Since we seem to be entering a world of more leisure time, less commuting, less work, more time spent in the house and fewer opportunities to leave it, broadcasters are likely to go on focusing on giving us what we want. And what we want is more of what we like. Long, it turns out, is the new short. YouTube was a brilliant invention, but it’s a relief that we haven’t got to survive on a diet of cats slipping on banana skins. Or those 10-minute programmes from Quibi. It turns out we have a hunger for something more substantial. Bring on the box sets.