The Need To Relax

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

The Need to Relax

After a hiatus, my blog is back – and will be focusing now primarily on analyzing content. The first subject I want to delve into is one that writers and development executives often overlook – that audiences consume entertainment in order to escape.

This may seem obvious, but writers spend a lot of time trying to create as realistic a story as possible. Realism helps viewers buy into the premise and creates a suspension of disbelief. Executive notes often revolve around maximizing conflict, creating high stakes, ensuring there’s a clear journey for the protagonist, pushing the authenticity of the world of the story, making it relatable – and fundamentally trying to ensure the audience identifies with what they’re watching. However, the audience’s own needs may actually be quite different.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that one of the key drivers of entertainment is the need to relax. This means that audiences seek content that departs from what they do on a day-to-day level. Identification may be important in order to get the viewer hooked, but – subconsciously at least – we want to watch content that helps us forget about our lives. We commissioned Dr. Kit Pleydell-Pearce (senior lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol) to examine the brain activity of different groups of people while they watch television. Kit had previously worked on a US Government DARPA project that studied the cognitive state of pilots while they were flying demanding aircraft. His initial research for us, concluded that “viewer engagement is a process in which brain activity reverts to a more relaxed and passive state.” Television physically helps us recharge our batteries.

Kit’s analysis focuses on the frontal lobe part of the brain, an area which is associated with “goal-oriented activity, planning, selection, control and focus of attention.” However, when we are paying most attention to entertainment, this part of the brain appears to be in a quieter state, while other parts of the brain may be more active (e.g. the amygdala, which is associated with emotion).

On a personal level, this makes sense to me. When I watch my team Arsenal play football, I’m pretty convinced my frontal lobe isn’t working too hard. I’m feeling tension for the team I support (and how poorly they’ve been playing), but I’m not really thinking about having to plan and write this blog. I’m feeling, rather than focusing.

There is also plenty of ratings evidence to support this idea. For instance, the legal drama ‘Suits’ is not particular popular with lawyers and judges – even though the show is about them! Using the Epsilon demographic breakdown available in Rentrak’s TV Essentials, you can look at different professions’ viewing habits. The chart below looks at the second season of ‘Suits’ on USA – and how varied the viewing share was for different professions. Since each profession has different total viewing, the index below is based on their respective shares. If a profession scores, say 1.15, it means the share of people from that profession who viewed ‘Suits’ was 15% higher than the national share of ‘Suits’.


From this chart, it is clear that lawyers and judges are, proportionately, the least interested in ‘Suits’. Interestingly, those viewers who work in the Military seem to be drawn to the show more than any other group. Perhaps the boardroom conflict and expensive style is an escape for people in the Military?

This is by no means an isolated example. Medical drama ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ suffers the same fate with doctors. During the month of November, 13% less Doctors watched the ABC drama than the national share. In the month of December that figure was 33% less than the national share.

What did doctors enjoy watching in that same period? College Football (roughly 60% above the average) and ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’ (viewed by 19% more Doctors than the average). The latter had virtually the same rating as Grey’s Anatomy’s November average (5.4), which tells us that this isn’t just an issue of proportions. In total – more doctors watched Charlie Brown than Grey’s Anatomy!

I guess watching Snoopy wearing his World War I flying ace costume is an easy thing to escape to.


Posted by azf |

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