Report From The Field: Nobody’s Paying Attention

As part of my Medialoper reporting duties, I often venture into the real world to get a sense of what’s happening outside the walls of the Internet. I have set up a little lab to study the media consumption habits of ordinary Americans. In order to keep the science almost rigorous, the group I’ve assembled is pretty much random, much like, well, what you’d find in an average office setting.

Since the dawn of the 2006-2007 Fall television season, I’ve had two conversations relating to traditional motion picture viewing. The first was a rather bizarre discussion about Lost. It started out as a review of the season premiere, but, well, died. Somehow it was a rehash of Season One — which, thankfully, I had seen enough of to fake my way through the conversation. Never let it be said that we don’t go the extra mile here.

I remain unclear about the viewer’s reaction to the episode, but came away with the sense that he would watch again next week, but with limited enthusiasm. I worry that Lost will suffer the 24 syndrome: strong starts that peter out before gaining strength again. In our household, that renewed vigor came too late. We’d deleted the series from our TiVo Season Passes.

The second conversation was about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Turning the tables on me, one of my subjects asked if I was planning to see this film on opening weekend. I admit that I was caught off-guard. “This weekend?” I finally managed. He then proceeded to describe the cast and, possibly, the crew, and about the time we go to Leondard DiCaprio, I realized I’d seen posters for the film at bus stops. The polling continued, and it turned out that 75% of the potential viewing audience were completely unaware of the imminent release date. We did, however, express incredibly strong enthusiasm for the upcoming Borat film, and the conversation quickly turned to the differences between Khazikstan and Moldova.

Music is also frequently discussed, especially since 75% of my subjects are also iPod owners (yes, iPod specifically, to date, I have not found users of any other hardware). One individual, apprised of the Zune DRM restrictions, allowed that as he doesn’t really like music anyway, three days was more than enough for any one song. He was in the minority. Others were simply baffled by the Zune. Brown, though very much in fashion this year, was seen as a risky color choice; as I like brown, I defended that decision. We need more color in our electronics. We have not yet come a long way from putty.

Mobile media is also frequently debated. This particular group happens to be far ahead of the average consumer when it comes to awareness of options. In fact, they are fully aware of the differences between mobile and hard drive-based, streaming versus sell-through versus rental versus format-they’re-making-up-on-the-spot. Almost universally, the act of using a cell phone as a viewing device is dismissed.

The reasons: screens, connections, and battery life. The final item is cited more frequently than any other. For many of my test subjects, the cell phone also serves as a communication device, and there seems to be a concern that watching videos might kill a battery that might otherwise be used to call 911 or the auto club in event of an emergency.

Pricing and confusion are also cited as barriers. Music seems to fare better than video when it comes to cell phones, but, again, there is concern about what consumers are getting for what they’re paying. Even some traditional early adopters are taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to mobile media. And when it comes to SMS applications? Lots and lots of skepticism. More than even I expected. Apparently paying to send and receive text messages is a cause for pause.

On the downloading front, there was resistance to paying for episodes of television that are traditionally viewed free (expressed as, “Why would I want to pay money for that?”). Even when pressed and assured of the absence of commercials, these consumers believe programming that has been perceived as free all along should remain free. This may be the biggest, most complex barrier faced by the entertainment media companies. They’ve been giving a lot of way for free…or at least that’s how it seems to the consumers. Consumers aren’t necessarily willing to give that up.

Nobody is enthusiastic about e-readers, but this particular test group doesn’t read much. I’ll probably have to set up another lab dedicated to readers. Oh, wait, I had the perfect test group last night — should have done a little experimentation then.

In other news, there is some rallying around the new PlayStation and curiosity about, hmm, how can I say this?, well, nobody could name a single new show on the networks’ fall schedules. Blank stares all around.

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