The Attention Economy Names Our Price — It’s Alarmingly Low

I don’t know about you, but December is just about the only time I feel any urge to splurge on myself. Once I’m in a gift-buying mindset, I consider things that I’d like but don’t actually need. I’ve had my knives sharpened. I bought an annual parking pass for Mt. Pisgah. I picked up a mushroom-growing kit.

Only in that context did Hulu Plus make any sense to (and for) me. For less than $50, I treated myself to a year of commercial-free television. Hulu is one of many services that caters to the so-called “cord-cutters” — those without extended cable TV packages. Hulu is owned by ABC, NBC, and Fox. It packages those networks’ shows, plus more than a dozen smaller cable networks.

Four dollars isn’t much to pay if you want to avoid commercials for a month. It’s also not enough to always remember that you paid it. When I decided to catch up on an ABC network show that I liked last year, I mistakenly went to the network’s website to watch this season’s first episode. It was terrible. The show wasn’t terrible — the experience was. For a one-hour show, the website fed me about 20 minutes of commercials. Then I remembered my Hulu splurge and watched the next episode in 42 minutes. I saved one third of that second hour.

I tell that story not to promote Hulu Plus or any other commercial (or, in this case, commercial-free) product. It served as a stark reminder of how much commercials have become a part of our lives. Almost half of those who will tune in a certain football game this Sunday will be enjoying the commercials more than the game. Advertisers are counting on it. Or they would, if anyone could actually count to five million, which is how many dollars a 30-second Super Bowl ad will cost.

News and entertainment companies — including this one — typically rely on advertising to subsidize their product. We’ve recently learned to describe this business model more honestly, as FaceBook and Google have refined it with digital precision.

This is no longer the Information Age, if it ever was. Information has certainly become super-abundant, but it was always a means to an end. We’re learning to call this the Attention Economy, because that’s really what drives it.

The measurement of our attention has been sometimes crude and unflattering. “Click-bait” hasn’t gotten a bad name — it’s given a name to something bad that always existed. We’re easily distracted, especially by our darker and more primitive desires.

Media companies always had to approximate what value they brought to their advertisers, based on (independently audited) circulation/viewership/listenership numbers, time-spent and user profile surveys, along with plenty of anecdotal testimonies. Online businesses measure all those same things, but with much greater precision. Ads can be targeted to tiny subsets of the overall audience. Prices are often set by auction.

Cost, benefit, and analysis are more closely linked than ever before, but the equation hasn’t changed.

Advertisers want to reach potential customers. Our attention drives their businesses and media companies deliver it. We pay a reduced price for our news and entertainment, but we make up the difference by paying attention instead.

How much is our attention worth? To be honest, that’s not a question I ever contemplated before this week. Hulu (and its three television network owners) believes it’s worth four dollars a month. That’s almost insulting, when you stop to think about it.

I saved 20 minutes on one show and it cost me four dollars. If I earned minimum wage and watched only two shows each month on Hulu Plus, I’d be coming out ahead.

If Hulu’s accountants are accurate — and why wouldn’t they be? — we could have had commercial-free living rooms for the past 70 years, for one measly (inflation-adjusted) dollar each week. For 13 cents a day, we could have saved all the time we’ve spent watching TV ads? If that’s true, the American public has been selling itself short for a very long time.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.