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What the Viewers Demand -- and TV Still Struggles to Provide

TV has stopped treating its consumers as "viewers" and has started treating them as "witnesses" and at times, active witnesses.
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I grew up in the early 80s. Our living room had only one entertainment device -- a TV set. Fast forward 30 years and I can count almost ten devices in our bourgeois but very standard living room. All of them there do the exact same job -- 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. A "witness", unlike a mere viewer -- has a certain part 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 -- reality must be altered is some 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, with its constant chase after individual comfort and personal success -- we occasionally need to stop the race -- 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 will 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 moments are important by sound, tears of children/celebrities or simply by calling it the Grand Finale. Audiences become more and more aware of those manipulations and demand "the real deal" more often.

Maybe the most classic example is seeing the difference between Who Wants to be a Millionaire (started 1998) and The Million Pound Drop Live (Started 2010). First of all, the name of the latter emphasizes live 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 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.

This piece also appeared on the official MIP blog

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