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Exactly How Much is Our Attention Worth? (Four Dollars)

December 17th, 2018 by dk

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. For a one-hour show, my four dollar investment allowed me to skip about 20 minutes of commercials. I save one third of my screen-viewing entertainment time for an entire month and it costs me less than a deli sandwich I might have made during one of those commercial breaks.

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. Advertisers count on it. Or they would, if anyone could actually count to five million, which is how many dollars a 30-second Super Bowl ad costs.

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. The shows we watched were there to make us see the commercials that paid for them. We’re now calling this the Attention Economy, because that’s really what’s being bought and sold.

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.

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 now be targeted to tiny subsets of the overall audience. Prices are often set by auction.

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.

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.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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