At first by circumstance, and now by design, this is how I organize my television diet: couch shows and phone shows.
It’s well known by now that Americans have changed the way they watch TV. People pull content from Hulu rather than have it pushed to us by CBS. DVRs allow for shifted viewing times and skipping ads. But those behaviors are just surface manifestations of a deeper transformation in modern media habits. Consumers are now, often unconsciously, sorting every media product—from podcasts to magazine stories to video—into three categories: intentional, interstitial, and invisible. The implications of these changes are huge, especially for the people who create what we watch.
Intentional media are the handful of offerings that we plan in advance to experience and then carve out particular chunks of time to enjoy. For me, these are the couch shows like Better Call Saul and very little else. Interstitial media, meanwhile, constitutes a far larger category. This is programming we use to fill the spaces in our lives—10 minutes in a grocery store line, 5 minutes waiting to pick up a kid at practice, 35 minutes on a train or bus. For me, these are the articles saved on Instapaper, audiobooks, and phone shows like Billions, which I enjoy immensely but have never seen inside my own home and have rarely watched in segments longer than a half hour. Invisible media, finally, is the largest category of all—the stuff we never see, that we’re scarcely aware even exists.
Examining the media ecosystem through these three lenses—which focus less on the technologies of distribution and more on the patterns of consumption—yields new clues about both the economics of media and the design principles of its creation. For example, economists and consultants have long pushed the idea of an “attention economy.” In the old days, their reasoning goes, information was scarce and therefore valuable. In the modern world, though, information is ubiquitous—which means the scarcest resource is human attention. It’s a good argument, but times have dislodged some of its foundational bricks.
What’s even scarcer today than attention is intention. Fifteen years ago, when I had no choice but to repair to a particular room to watch television, the imperative for anyone in the TV industry was to secure my attention once I got there. This was quite easy in the pre-cable days and still possible in the era of 100 channels and no DVR. But today, when I carry in my pocket a television set connected to a celestial jukebox of programming that I can watch or listen to any time and any place, the supply of attention, while still limited, has actually expanded. And that means what’s more valuable is getting me to intend—to plan, to identify a block of time, and to summon a spouse or a friend.
And that, in turn, changes the way creators ought to think about their creations. The highest aspiration is to produce something so monumental and extraordinary that it demands intention. Think Game of Thrones. It is, for millions of people (though not for me), the quintessential couch show. Watching eight minutes of it on your Android while waiting for a prescription at CVS seems sacrilegious. Whether viewers watch a new GOT episode every Sunday night or time-shift their consumption is irrelevant. What matters is that people deliberately create a new, extended, and meaningful space to experience the show—rather than use the show to occupy existing, shorter, and less meaningful spaces. And intentionality is not reserved for premium-cable programming aimed at the chattering class. The success of NBC’s live musicals, which have drawn tens of millions of viewers, many of them no doubt families assembled in living rooms, testifies to the rising value of intention.
Producers, directors, and writers should understand that viewers today are enlisting a decision-making heuristic similar to the one Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes used to determine which suitors deserved her limited supply of contraceptive sponges. We ask of each show: Is it couch-worthy?
But couch-worthiness is not the sole criterion for successful media. Even though intention has become the scarcest resource, attention remains valuable. It’s just that now people often dole it out in smaller increments, and in different contexts than they once did. For instance, I’ve still seen all 46 episodes of Silicon Valley and all 33 episodes of Billions, because that TV set in my pocket allows me to enliven the dead spaces in my days with something more compelling than staring into space or hate-scrolling on Twitter.
Mike Judge, the creator of Silicon Valley, and Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, the creators of Billions, might be miffed that I haven’t deemed their brilliance worth a trip to the couch. They shouldn’t be. I watch their shows religiously. It’s just that my practice is more Reform than Orthodox. This is key: Interstitial media isn’t a lesser category. It’s just a different category.
Once creators acknowledge that legions of viewers are encountering their work on different terms, they can begin rethinking the structure and grammar of their creations. For example, if I’m going to watch an hour-long drama in three or four separate short stints, why not divide each episode into chapters—literally labeling Chapters 1, 2, 3, and so on—which would allow me to stick a bookmark in the show the way I do with books, which I never read in one sitting? Not every show is for binge watchers, though many producers and streaming platforms seem to assume that they should be.