Thursday, February 12, 2009

The TV Is Watching You !

I have a love-hate relationship with my TV remote control.

I grew up with TVs without remote control. In those days, the boxy TVs came with chunky buttons or dials for you to switch channel. Being seated at about two meters away, changing channels was not necessary until the entire program is over. For some strange reasons, watching commercials was considered part of the entertainment too.

Just like today, watching TV then was a passive activity. Family members would gather in front of the TV. Somehow, there was little or no argument as to which channel the whole family should stick to. Everyone faithfully shared the same program throughout. The sharing did not stop within the family as it was not uncommon to have neighbors who were not so privileged to join in too.

Since the invasion of remote control, watching TV was no longer so simple.

First of all, there was an issue with who should be holding the remote control. If there was no clear cut seniority or dominance, the remote control became an objection of contention, especially among the children.

Then, there was the issue of misplacement. I remember losing the remote control for one of our TVs as soon as it was purchased. For a long time, we had to watch the TV without the convenience of a remote control until a replacement was purchased.

With more gadgets joining the family room, more remote controls come along too. In a typical family, you can find a platoon of remote controls scattering on the couch or organised neatly in a caddy. Looking for the right one can sometimes be rather frustrating.

Channel surfing is an off-shoot of having remote control and it can be a real 'social' problem. It is common to find a member or two in the family who are fond of surfing channels. Having your TV programs interrupted by such companions can really make you lose your sanity.

Even if you are not a channel surfer, you probably rarely really sit through the entire program. Most people begin to switch channel when the credits start rolling. At times, you may also temporarily switch to another channel because you cannot stand the sight of some silly commercials.

TV stations are very interested to know what exactly we do in front of the TV. The reason is simple: they attract you to watch their shows and meanwhile, they sell your 'eyeballs' to the advertisers. The more you glue to the TV, the more attractive is their TV station, and therefore the more the advertisers will be prepared to pay them.

For that simple business models, TV stations need to get some popularity indicators for their TV programs.

Some years ago, a software company was studying what it could tell about a person based on how he or she used a television remote control. The company discovered that by recording every button-press on a remote and analyzing the resulting data, the company could pick out distinct "channel surfing patterns.

The patterns can be used to determine which one of several members of a household has control of the TV at any particular time. It was found that men and women use the TV remote control quite differently. During commercial breaks, men engage in a kind of rapid-fire channel surfing, while women tend to switch to only one or two other channels, if they surf at all. (but of course, I don't need a research to know that!)

Once the pattern is understood, the TV stations can use the same method to guess whether a viewer is male or female. And, because our channel-surfing behavior is significantly affected by others in the room, the TV stations can also tell whether there is more than one person watching the TV.

In this way, the TV stations can "watch" you while you are watching their programs. Having 'understood' their viewers better, they can then be more targeted in program selection. They can also schedule commercials to appear within the right show at the right time so as to maximise viewership.

While I have not heard of such thing being done in Singapore yet (can anyone verify?), it is totally possible for it creep into our lives one day. When that time comes, the life of the couch potatoes will not longer be the same.

Of course, you will still have the choice of turning off the TV.

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