Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. Attention spans.

When did we turn into a nation of goldfish?


This question was sparked by a tweet by Swineshead about ITV’s new flagship gameshow The Colour of Money. His fellow blogger’s enjoyment of the programme is seriously hindered by the constant recaps of what has happened just a few minutes earlier in the show.

The blog post prompted a mini discussion about how programme-makers in general now seem to believe our collective attention span has reduced faster than the exchange rate.

Chris Tarrant’s gameshow is not the only culprit. There are plenty of other examples of shows – from the lightest of entertainment to the most substantial (sic) of news and current affairs programmes, everything feels staccato these days.

The stuttering progress of these shows is down to (sorry Tim) a direct result of the need to recap what we’ve just listened to or seen every few minutes. Indeed, some overdo it so much you actually feel like you’re going backwards.

So, are we now losing out to goldfish in the attention span stakes?

A day out to a zoo this week seemed to confirm that we cannot focus longer than a few minutes. The pace of life has increased so rapidly that we have lost the ability to dwell.

We don’t like to linger any longer.

The first indication came during the penguin feeding. A largish crowd had gathered to watch, but at least a third had left before the end of the 10-minute spectacle.

Moving on to the stunning Amur Leopard, we watched it watching us in awe for a while before we were joined by a couple. The woman spent most of the time looking at her own reflection in the glass and fussing with her hair, while her beau got out his phone and stared at the small screen. They moved on within a couple of minutes, barely giving this endangered big cat a second glance.

The lowlight, however, came at the lion enclosure where two magnificent cats were sprawled out watching the world go by.

A young couple with a pushchair appeared. The woman fussed her hair as she checked out her reflection and there was a brief exchange with her partner about the fact she looked a “right state”.

They stared at the two lions for a few seconds, until the woman announced: “Bored now. I mean, they don’t do anything do they?”

Her significant other grunted his agreement and they disappeared, no doubt to criticise the otters for being too small or for spending too much time in the water.

So, just to recap, we can’t concentrate these days. We’re unable to focus on anything for any length of time and the likes of The Colour of Money are merely mirroring the viewing audience they seek to entertain.

If you’ve managed to read down this far, you win a prize* for services to attention spans.

(*There is no prize, other than the reward of reading 500 words. I bet you feel cheated now?)

8 responses »

  1. Nick Scott Donald says:

    Would it be too old- school to suggest that this all began with the advent of the remote control channel- changer?
    Regarding television channels, there is, perhaps, a little bit of truth in the statement that “too much choice can be bad for your health”.

  2. Tim J says:

    I’ve just read it all the way through. I didn’t even stop when I got to the phrase is down to, and that’s unusual for me. 😉

    Rolf Harris discussing children’s TV: “The attention span isn’t three minutes. It’s as long as you remain interesting.”

    A quibble about goldfish: I think their short memory makes them immune from boredom. Have you ever heard one say it was bored?

  3. Paul Groves says:

    Nick: I’m more inclined to blame Thatcher, but you might have a point.

    Tim: “…down to…” mistake now corrected 🙂
    I tend to think the problem these days is trying to keep the parents focused, rather than the children.
    I’m sure I’ve seen goldfish sighing – maybe that was an expression of contentment rather than boredom?

  4. Tim J says:

    Somehow I think down to will be officially-correct English in ten or fifteen years’ time and people like me will be grumbling about constructions like “He downto Margaret Thatchered it”.

    Actually most things can be downto-Thatchered and in this case I think she had two roles: (i) devaluation of anything that wasn’t frantic money-making, and (ii) the need to get up and switch the radio off very quickly whenever her voice came on. You can’t linger in a situation like that.

    In Silence John Cage mentions a saying in Zen that if you find something boring, you’ve not been doing it for long enough. So if doing it for a minute is boring, you should do it for two minutes, then four, then eight, etc, until eventually you discover that it’s very interesting. He’s sort of right: if you never linger on anything then you don’t actually get the opportunity to discover why it’s interesting. Interest isn’t instant.

  5. hemminac says:

    Well when we’re bombarded from every angle with “stuff”, be it news, marketing, whatever, there are too many things to focus on!

    However, is the repetition due to audience attention spans, or just padding out the programme? There are so many prime-time programmes that are full of repetition, extensive and utterly useless wide shots and general time-wasting trickery. A Channel 5 documentary will preview what’s coming up later half a dozen times in a half hour show!

    Low budgets, thin programming?

    I’d also go a little deeper than attention spans with the animals example. I’d suggest that that’s more down to the things that people value more in life now. The world seems more interested in rather empty notions of status, personal honour and materialism than the real world.

    I’ve sat on many a bus coming out of Birmingham, watching some amazing sunsets over the city – yet all around me were people obsessed with general shite – their hair, their clothes, their car, their mobile phone, their dad being harder than someone elses, etc. People can concentrate – just on the wrong things!

  6. Paul Groves says:

    Hemminac: It might be a classic chicken and egg situation.
    I think you’re right regarding the low-budget, thin programmes and the amount of “stuff” we’re exposed to. But is it creating an audience unable to focus on anything for longer than a few minutes, or merely reacting to the demands of an attention span-challenged public?

    As for the obsession on materialism and the shallow things in life, this is why I blame Thatcher.

  7. hemminac says:

    Well that repetitive time-filling nonsense has driven me away from watching TV.

    Surely marketing folk had been selling fake notions of value long before Thatcher came along? Television is a much to blame! We didn’t want for what we didn’t know about, but then along came a box in our living rooms, showing us a world of things we didn’t have.

    Who knows what the internet will do to the world?! Come to think of it….it might be to blame for the attention span problem. If we can’t find what we want straight away…we click away.

  8. Tim J says:

    I think the multiplicity of things to focus on is relevant. There’s always the feeling that if you stop to focus properly on one specific thing for more than a few moments, you either ought to be doing something else or mght be missing something else.

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