We talk to entertainment consumers all the time - about shows, about apps, about print, about themselves, about TV and other entertainment devices that use electricity. We talk with hundreds of people a year and survey thousands, especially adults under 30, but also people older and younger. This year, some trends emerged again and again. In how consumers are evolving in how they view and use television, below are OpenMind's Top Ten Trends for 2012.
"Ee-we-we-we: 'I want what I want when I want it.'"
We all know people are time-shifting, on-demanding, and streaming more than ever, and the younger they are the more likely they are to think watching what they want to watch when they want to watch it is a God-given right. The desire for immediate gratification implies more and more of the above, along with ever more mobile viewing, on whatever screen is at hand. For marketers and programmers, it implies that they should try, like Coca Cola, to be "within arm's reach of desire." The companies and channels that will do the best job with consumers will be the ones that make immediate gratification easiest. After all, satisfying desire is as good for the seller as it is for the buyer.
2. Attention Division Disorder
"I can't stand to be bored, but I can't really focus..."
Our mobile screens allow us to never experience the feeling of having to be still and quiet without entertainment, whether waiting in line or commuting on a train. The feeling of boredome is excruciating, not just to kids and teenagers anymore, but to people of all ages. We game, read, view, text, facebook, follow... anything to not just be waiting - "Doing nothing!", which drives us crazy when there's so much to be done. Doing one thing at a time is often not enough, either - just being in class, or only watching TV, (or just driving, unfortunately) - single activities aren't satisfying our desire to be doing more. With all our screens and feeds, the modern mind is more and more like a passel of puppies, a roiling pile of impulses and distractions. Each scrambling puppy needs a nipple before the fractious modern mind can calm down and enjoy itself. We want to be texting, facebooking, gaming, following, or reading - and watching - all at the same time, because doing one thing is almost as boring and excruciating as not doing anything. For programmers, this suggests giving viewers multiple ways to connect - real time twitter conversations, Facebook updates, and television, all at once.
3. Personal Marathoning
"I like to get on a kick..."
Some say this is a Golden age of television - so much good scripted stuff, so much of it on Sundays, so much of it coming from channels that used to be known for peddling movies. And so much salacious reality, the guilty pleasure, can't-eat-just-one mindsnacks of drunkenness, drama, dumbness, and dudgeon that so many of us, especially women, simply cannot resist.
Entertainment consumers love this delicious stuff, both the steaks and the McMuffins, and are creating their own personally programmed marathons to binge on their favorite flavors. Via Netflix, On Demand, on DVD, online, in bit torrents, or just by jumping into the show that's "always on when I turn to that particular reality channel," they're gobbling multiple episodes in a sitting, often with partners or friends, and "watching it all in one go."
For the viewers, this is partly about catching up on the important things one missed (The Wire, anyone?), partly about satisfying the desire for gratification (and, if doing so with friends, for multiple contact points - see A.D.D., above), and partly about people having developed a real issue with cliff-hangers. They love 'em, but they can't wait a whole week. They're IWWIWWIWI people - they want to scratch that itch immediately. So they'll stockpile episodes and marathon instead of waiting. Programmers will feed into this behavior with their packaging and scheduling, doing more stacking and review shows.
If they're smart, they'll also look to involve multiple people in these private marathons - friendship circles, couples, families. The new popcorn night may have everyone in the family watching the same show in multiple episodes, while playing a game with one another and networking with their own friends and seeking their own added value content.
4. Me in Extemis
"I relate to extremes."
It used to be people wanted to watch TV to see people they could "relate" to - kind of like themselves, but a little better looking or funnier or more glamorous. Now they want to watch people who aren't like them at all - they're a lot better looking, or worse looking, funnier or scarier, more glamorous or more downtrodden. And viewers find these extremes extremely "relatable." They find not just girls-next-door relatable, but girls living in other realities. Kim Kardashian is relatable, and so are vampires, and meth dealers, incredibly rich "housewives," and people whose houses have been destroyed.
In a world in which video games have trained us just how different an avatar can be from us while still being us, our definition of "relatability" has changed. Viewers, especially young women, still want to see people of their own gender and about their own age, having fun and grappling with issues (for women, finding love; for guys, establishing power), but as long as they get those links to their own identity, they're more interested in "me in extremis" than characters "like me." Who do consumers relate to? Maybe guys who drive big trucks on ice roads. Maybe werewolves. People with supernatural abilities, people who are forced to become evil, women who are richer than the 1% - this is The New Relatability.
Programmers and marketers can be more adventurous in pushing the boundaries of "relatability" with extremes of looks, ability, and even morality. People are interested in the edges of experience, not just its mainstream.
5. A Hunger for Sensation
Much of people's favorite entertainment is dark these days, from Z (zombies) to A (apocalypse), from dark humor to deeply dark drama. Vampires, ghosts, hoarders, meth dealers, and Louis C.K. take us where we want to go - into the Dark. Halloween is the fastest growing holiday, partly because times are dark. Scary rides and movies help us experience fear "safely" - it feels good to scream, a protection against truly scary things, like Congress taking the nation to the brink of default.
It's partly more sophisticated entertainment palates wanting more bitter and spicy fare, the way adults prefer darker chocolate over the milky stuff. It's mostly a hunger for sensation. In a digital world, we interact with things with gloves on - we have fewer in-person contacts, fewer analog experiences, fewer things we can truly feel. Dark programming makes us feel more. We don't just want warm laughs - we want shrieking, pee-your-pants laughs. Sad drama is not enough - dire, tragic drama is what we want. Not just mysteries - twisted, terrifying plots. We want spicier, more meaningful food, and darker, more intense entertainment.
Could a better economy translate into sunnier entertainment? Will people grow tired of this stuff? Yes and no. People may enjoy something frothy and fun (as long as it provides sufficient sensation), but they will probably continue to go for darker fare as well. Once you've developed a taste for dark chocolate, you don't lose it.
6. Total Immersion
"I like to get sucked in."
More extreme relatability, darker stories, not just immediate gratification but total gratification through multiple screens and touch points - all of these point to an overall consumer desire - to be fully immersed in entertainment. Much of the talk about entertainment on multiple platforms is about consumers' demand for greater convenience, and that demand is very real. But consumers are also expressing a demand for greater immersion, and are using both new and old technologies to achieve it. Better mobile devices, bigger TVs, 3D movies, Wii players that engage the body - these are all growing in popularity and commanding premium prices, and so are haunted houses, spicier foods, bigger Broadway shows, and more crowded retail events.
Whether their means are old-fashioned or newfangled or both, marketers and programmers that create more immersive experiences will win customers - and profits.
7. The Touch Gap
"What does it do when you touch it?"
We're hearing again and again: "my 2 year old went to the TV and was so frustrated that the screen didn't do anything!" New generation screens and new generation people are wired to communicate via touch. Old generation machines don't work that way. Old generation people read instruction manuals. New generation people figure out how to do things through touch.
The gap between our growing expectations that touch is another modality with which we can connect to entertainment (in many games, it's the driving modality), and the lack of ability of some of our devices to connect with us via touch will drive young consumers crazy. It may also drive technology companies to deliver touch-activated entertainment experiences sooner and cheaper.
The generation gap around touch technology will persist. Touch is another "language," and - as with any language - the people who will be most fluent in it will be those speaking it from birth.
8. Comedy Gets Real
"Reality = hilarity."
There are successful scripted comedies (Modern Family, Mike and Molly, It's Always Sunny...), but when people want to laugh so hard that food flies out of their nose, they turn to Jersey Shore. Increasingly the most "incredible" realities are fulfilling the function that used to be filled by sitcoms - reliable laughs. Reality co-viewing among families isn't just American Idol anymore, it's the "guilty pleasure" of the Kardashians, which is - let's face it - funny.
Reality programming has blurred the line between observer and observed (as a parent in one of my focus groups said recently, "I walked into my daughter's room to find her and a friend playing with a Barbie doll: 'and now they're having sex... and now this one is videotaping it!'"). The laughs from reality programming are less comfortable, but more extreme.
Programmers can succeed with unscripted programming that goes beyond letting us fantasize about other "real" people's lifestyles, and lets us laugh with or at them instead. And, marketers should remember there's nothing's funnier than someone who's full of themselves falling down.
9. Lost on the Dial
"What channel is this?"
As copycat programming, particularly in the reality genre, has become more prevalent, viewers have a harder time knowing what channel they're watching. Which channel's show about stuff/storage/picking/auctions/hoarding is this? Who cares, it's entertaining, so let's watch it.
Cable has chipped away at the broadcast networks for years, in part because they've been better at branding channels as destinations. But as the cable crowd chases each emerging reality formula, channels are getting as hard to tell apart as cellphone plans. This may be the time for broadcast networks to steal back a bit of share. As cable channels act more and more like the broadcast networks, with an undifferentiated, scattershot strategy of trying to buy things that seem like other hits, they are more vulnerable.
Perhaps a new class of entertainment brands may emerge. When you get your TV on different boxes, who made it may become as valuable a brand as what channel showed it. Production companies may become more important to consumers as ways to tell one show from another. Magical Elves is a more reliable imprimatur of a particular kind of experience than most channels. Simon Cowell is already a bigger name than many cable networks. Over the next few years, look to studios to develop ways to leverage their own brands, not just build up the channels they sell to - who seem to care less these days about providing a unique and consistent experience than ever.
10. Occupy Reality
"I need to take a break for a while."
A small but vital segment of the population, including people of all ages, selectively or completely unplugs on occasion. Whether it's canceling a Facebook account, putting the TV in a closet for a season, or living in a tent in a public park, sometimes people want to get away from the totally immersive, multi-screen, intense, extreme, sensory satisfaction of their chosen entertainment, and engage with the world in a totally analog way.
In the shadow of every trend grows a countertrend, like chantarelles under a pines. The big trends are big business. The countertrends are solid niche businesses. The Slow Food movement prospers in the fast food nation. In this digital age, sales of vinyl records and record players are stronger than in the past, food (the ultimate analog experience) is a growing part of the entertainment landscape, and face-to-face games are attracting a new following.
After all, reality can be as totally immersive, multi-sensory, and as engaging as "reality."
"Bring It On!"
Together these trends comprise a picture of the evolving media consumer. Most are the result of how digital media is changing people, and how people are changing and contributing to digital media. Much has been made of how digital evolution makes content consumption more convenient, more mobile, smaller, and more one-on-one. But digital is also making entertainment media more immersive, more able to satisfy our desire for simultaneous watching and conversing, and more able to provide intensity through 3D, digital effects, and interactive enhancements.
Consumers demand that their entertainment be not just more convenient, but more immersive, not just more immediate, but more gratifying. They want to really feel, to really connect, to touch and be touched. They'll continue to look for programming that satisfies those demands, and to say to programmers and marketers: "Bring it on!"
Open Mind Strategy