Attention spans for streaming and online video are the exact opposite of what you’d expect.

How online video and binge watching is transforming engagement in the era of short form content.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center released a set of predictions for the behavior of individuals in their teens and early 20’s in the year 2020. One of the consistent themes was the reduction of attention spans for millennials to those that might rival, or dip below those of goldfish.

This march towards idiocracy is a common theme in perennial “doom and gloom” of previous generations and the media dog-piling on “those damn kids and their ‘rock n’ roll’”. While it’s true that there is a trend towards “micro transactions of attention”, from Snapchat, to glances on the Apple Watch, there is another trend in attention spans that is skyrocketing in the exact opposite direction that seems to be missing from these observations - namely, the phenomenon of streaming and online binge watching of content.

This past April, Netflix announced that its members streamed more than 10 billion hours of content in Q1 of 2015, or, as they pointed out about 905,892,833 seasons of House of Cards. At the time of the stat, Netflix had approximately 60 million subscribers (and is poised to hit the stratosphere with their global expansion), so some quick math gets us to about 160+ hours of content streamed per member, or 40 hours per week - or, 8 hours per day. That’s a helluva lotta goldfish.

So, how can we explain this dichotomy? We at Slate think it’s pretty simple, and boils down to a couple points:

  1.   Not all “content” is equal.
  2.   Advertising is not “content”
  3.   Great content grabs attention

Let’s look at the first point:

1. Not all “content” is equal. 

Content is a “peanutbutter” term, used to describe most anything that a user consumes on any platform, with little to no distinction between the contents, context or mechanism. Take this piece of content:

Slate ran an informal test in our studio, and the average “attention” given to this piece of content was 1.25 seconds. The information was retained, and could be recited back with accuracy, and the receptivity of the message was high - it was helpful, and elicited positive emotions. But, with an average “engagement” of 1.25 seconds, this piece of content is a “failure”. Dwell time and unique revisits were abysmal, and there was no online sharing of this content. If this sounds ridiculous - it is. Attempting to measure attention spans for aggregating something like the weather, and a one hour episode of Orange is the New Black is not only inaccurate, but incredulous.  What we’re arguing is more an efficiency of information delivery, and increased context in that delivery, rather than a steady slide into oblivion. The ability for users to customize their modes of consumption, illustrated by everything from Twitter feeds to Netflix queues, have let users go from “tasting” information, to “binging”, when they want.

The unit of measure for attention spans has typically been something that the advertising community terms “engagement”, or time spent, receptivity, recall, and recidivism (re-visiting). Organizations like Nielsen, GFK MRI and the IAB have metrics on how to measure this engagement, and therefore, the success of content. These metrics, though, are largely based on the currency of the market - advertising. Which leads us to our next point.

2. Advertising is not “content”.

There is an old, behind closed doors saying in the advertising industry: If advertising was something people actually wanted, it’d be called entertainment. Now, this isn’t a rant against the advertising industry at all. It’s an out-loud realization of a trend in viewership that started with the VCR & TiVo, and has extended to web ad-blockers and Hulu’s Commercial Free offering. Namely - advertising and content make odd bedfellows.

Viewers clearly like ads (we’re not just pandering, here) - as seen by the yearly observance of millions of people watching the Super Bowl solely for the commercials. But, bad ads are bad content - and can be annoying, aggressive, or downright hostile, leading people to tune them out, and revolt. What we’re seeing is this same user customization and self-selection of content types and methods of delivery materializing in users choosing to watch nothing but commercials one minute, and paying extra to completely avoid them the next. Great content gets viewers, and not-so-great content gets, well… blocked. Users - viewers - want to be entertained, and they’re voting with their attention spans, and their wallets.

This leads us to our last point:

3. Great Content Grabs Attention

We love House of Cards, Transparency, Man in the High Castle, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and we LOVE that we can spend hours (days!) on end watching them, as well as our “comfort food” shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and Full House. They’ve got our attention for the simple fact that they’re really good, and made to keep us engaged for long periods of time. Great content grabs (and keeps) our attention, and, we’ll pay for that. And companies and services that make finding and watching that content simple and enjoyable gain viewership, and increase their subscription numbers.

There is a resurgence of attention paid to the value of long-form content, and of viewer’s desire to pay for the experience. Ubiquitous, curated, and personalized content delivery services, such as Tribeca Shortlist, provide viewers with thousands of hours of engaging movies, hand-selected and introduced by the likes of Alec Baldwin, John Leguizamo, & Brett Ratner for less than the price of a Venti at Starbucks. These experiences keep viewers hooked, and returning day after day.

So, the next time a friend of loved one chides you for being distracted by a tweet or Buzzfeed headline, remind them of the weekend you spent watching all 5 seasons of Boardwalk Empire.