Photo: Deannster on flickr
When homo economicus gets home after a hard day’s cost-benefit analysis, he sits down in front of the box and puts his utility-maximising feet up. He looks at the TV schedule, works out his optimal channel preferences and, knowing these would lead to the most happiness, sticks to his choices.Sadly most folk’s habits are not like this. A new paper by Constanca Esteves-Sorenson and Fabrizio Perretti finds we tend to stay on the same channel, sometimes despite our indifference to the next programme. Even when the costs are one thumb-press of a button, we stubbornly stick with the less preferred option.
The authors look at Italian TV data from 1990 to 2003: six channels drew in about 90% of audience in this period, so assessing couch potatoes’ habits is easier. The authors take into account factors such as soggy weather, which raises demand for all shows, and reverse causality (some eager viewers tune in early and watch the last five minutes of a show). They find that a 10% greater audience for one programme results in a 2-4% rise in ratings for the next show, even if there are competing programmes that ordinarily attract viewers away (such as new episodes and gender-targeted shows).
This has a huge effect on profits. Had Italian media barons not taken advantage of this behaviour, they would have seen a 20-40% fall in profits. Other countries also routinely exploit this irrationality. “Seinfeld” was so popular that TV bosses joked, “You could read the phone book after Seinfeld and get a 25% viewer share.” The BBC, Britain’s paternalistic broadcaster, used to show “light” programmes just before weightier culture programmes, solely to trick viewers into watching culture. Media rival Rupert Murdoch griped about this “elitism” to David Dimbleby, a lofty inquisitor, on the BBC in the 1980s:
MURDOCH: In order to get viewers for this programme, [the BBC] put on a very sexy episode of Star Trek.
DIMBLEBY: Oh I don’t think they put it on to get us viewers. We were just lucky –
MURDOCH: They try to carry viewers into these shows. I know how it’s done.
What interests the authors of the paper is why people don;t quick switch channel. Previous studies on US television yield different explanations. Some think imperfect information is at play (channels advertise the next show between ad breaks, so some viewers stay tuned); others think, with so many channels, the costs of estimating the optimum channel is too high. These conclusions imply viewers are still rational.
But these factors are not at play in the Italian study. The explanation that most fits, say the authors, is procrastination: TV viewers put off changing channel till the last possible moment, even if they prefer the other side. This is consistent with findings that folk do not cancel gym membership even when they no longer use the gym; and irrationally delay contributing to their pensions. The homo economicus model is defunct: in TV, as in other things, a little dose of paternalism may help.
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