When it comes to television, I have always been a ‘glancer’ rather than a ‘gazer’. Born somewhere between Generation X and Generation Y, I grew up with what is now commonly referred to as ‘traditional’ television. As a child, much of my television consumption served as accompaniment: I remember drawing pictures or setting up my toys in the living room, so I could enjoy the pleasant flow of television programmes. In later years, I would routinely do my homework in front of the flickering small screen, most of the time listening to MTV and only occasionally looking up to watch my favourite music videos. As a young adult, this television viewing habit continued, with parallel activities shifting from homework to housework and internet use.
During all this time, my relationship with the domestic screen was characterised by the ‘glance’, the fleeting, casual look which John Ellis described more than three decades ago (1992 ). The German term ‘Nebenbeimedium’ (Kuhlmann and Wolling 2004) aptly captures television’s frequent function as a background or ‘on-the-side’ medium. In their 2004 survey of German television users, Christoph Kuhlmann and Jens Wolling found that television can serve as both, an auditory and a visual background medium. For example, a viewer may watch a muted television broadcast while talking on the phone, or listen to a programme, without paying much attention to the images, while cleaning the house, eating dinner or playing on the computer. However, the authors identified audio-centric usage as the dominant mode of ‘on-the-side’ television consumption.
But things have changed. With the internet pervading more and more areas of life, television, too, is constantly increasing its online presence. The convenience of watching whatever you want whenever you want is drawing millions of viewers to online subscription services. Netflix, for example, currently has over 75 million subscribers in more than 190 countries, according to the company website (Netflix 2016) [link: http://ir.netflix.com/]. The advantages of on-demand television are clear: audiences have now gained independence of network schedules and can enjoy their chosen programmes without the distraction of commercial breaks. For viewers in non-English-speaking countries there is another advantage: many internet television providers offer various language options so that those interested in the original (mostly English) version can find online what local television networks often fail to provide, especially in countries where dubbing is the dominant translational practice for imported programmes.
It could be assumed that increased control over the televisual experience would facilitate a more ‘gaze’-like viewing practice, that is, a more ‘intense activity of looking’ (Ellis 1992, 49) at the selected content reproduced at a convenient time on one’s screen of choice. Yet, I have found the opposite to be true: with my attention span having suffered significantly from the constant media overload that is governing most of our lives today, I can hardly sit through any show without frequently stopping the flow to check my e-mails and Facebook messages, perform a quick online search or find something to entertain my stomach while I stare at the computer screen. These self-induced interruptions occur with much higher frequency than the commercial breaks of traditional television. As a result, I am unable to truly immerse myself into the television series that I specifically seek out to enjoy online.
My experience seems to be confirmed by research: a Microsoft Consumer Insight study (Microsoft Canada 2015) [link: https://advertising.microsoft.com/en/WWDocs/User/display/cl/researchreport/31966/en/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf] conducted in Canada claims that the average human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds in 2013, thus falling one second below the attention span of a goldfish (to my disappointment, the methodology of measuring a goldfish’s attention span is not detailed in the report). The study found a correlation between difficulties to maintain prolonged focus and general media consumption patterns: early tech adopters, heavy social media users, heavy multi-screeners, high volume media consumers and those aged 18 to 24 show particularly short attention spans. ‘Overall, digital lifestyles have a negative impact on prolonged focus,’ the researchers conclude (Microsoft Canada 2015, 23). This is explained with the ‘thrill of finding something new [that] often makes connected consumers jump off one experience into another’ (Microsoft Canada 2015, 23).
Unfortunately, this appears to be true. The incessant flow of welcome and less welcome news and messages, both professional and personal, relayed through an increasing number of digital channels, keeps most of us on our toes, most of the time. When it comes to online television viewing, it can be hypothesized that those watching programmes on a computer screen, rather than using a more sophisticated home cinema system for their on-demand services, are even more tempted to stray from their selected stream. With the computer keyboard literally at arm’s length, the potential thrill of other stimuli and the seeming connectedness to the rest of the online world are always just a click away.
The resulting inner restlessness, the compulsive interruption of any and all television programmes, facilitated through the pause button – probably the most used function on any streaming device nowadays -, has even spilled over to my DVD viewing habits. Formerly a great fan of watching television series on DVD, often several episodes in one session, I now find myself unable to go through even a single one without pausing it multiple times. Why? The truth is: because I get bored. No matter how intriguing the storyline or how clever the dialogues, it is not enough anymore to hold my attention for longer than 15 minutes at a time.
This phenomenon, the frequently and intentionally interrupted televisual glance, could be described as TVADD (i.e., television attention deficit disorder). While obviously not a medical condition, I wonder if there is a cure for our increasing inability to experience the pleasure of just watching TV.
Jamila Baluch is currently working as a lecturer in media studies at the CIEE Global Institute Berlin. Her main research interests are representations of race and gender in American television’.