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The Long Tail Theory: Why Webseries Creators Need Net Neutrality

The following remarks were delivered by Thom Woodley at the WGAE’s Capital Hill briefing on Internet policy.
* * *

Thom Woodley speaks in Senate Judiciary room

Thom Woodley at WGAE Hill briefing in the Senate Judiciary Committee room

Thank you, it’s an honor to be here.
I am a writer, and a creator of content, and as such, by necessity, an entrepreneur. What I’m going to talk about today are the business models of web video, how the open web allows creators to do innovative work, and the dangers that paid prioritization creates for that innovation.

In our discussions of net neutrality today, we’ve a couple of times heard the comparison of the internet to highways. I’d like to expand that. Let’s suppose that a state decides adopt the prioritization model to their roadwork. This would mean they don’t pave roads in a certain area as well as other ones. We all know what would happen. The economy in that area suffers. Trucks can’t get to it, no one wants to drive along the bumpy, dirty road.

It’s the same online. Pavement equals streaming speed. If the streaming speed is slow, no one will watch. We don’t force the people who live on that road, the businesses on that road, to pay directly for paving the whole thing. But Internet Service Providers want to do that exact thing to content providers. If we don’t have net neutrality, ISPs could charge content providers money to deliver their content at a reasonable enough speed.

I am going to make the case that that is tantamount to killing a new industry before it has developed.
There is a business model of independent web video. There are a few. They exist, but they’re still nascent. And it’s very different from television or most other traditional economic structures.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Long Tail Theory of economics. I’ll just give a quick abstract. Say we’re in a book store. 80% of people who come into that store will tend to buy the same top 20% of books. The remaining 20% of people may also buy that top tier, but in addition, seek out products that are more diverse, less common denominator. When we chart these spending habits, rank of products sold against volume of sales, we get a short ‘body’ and a long ‘tail’.

Now, in a store, there’s a physical inventory. So it only makes sense to keep that top 20% in stock. Of course, for an online store, inventory is more vast. So you can open up the full 100% of products, and get that extra business. And here’s a hidden secret: people in this long tail will tend to pay more for the products they love, if they are perceived as rare.

How does this relate to television? TV has a fixed inventory of time that it is selling. As well as a great expense in broadcasting it. So it only makes sense to program shows that 80% of the populace will seek out. The same with movie theaters – a fixed number of screens. But web video has no fixed period of time. It has no fixed numbers of screens. Strictly speaking, it has no distributional limits, except for streaming speed.

That means that online, this long tail of specialized content is now open for everybody.

From an advertising perspective, we know that a message moves farther and more effectively when it is highly tailored to its audience. You are three times more likely to watch a video if a friend shared it to you. So advertisers have an excellent model here. Let’s take as an example, an award-winning and very popular series I participate in called The Temp Life. It is sponsored by a staffing agency who could never afford to buy TV time. But they could afford a more specified and tailored web production with Hollywood celebrities like Milo Ventimiglia and Illeana Douglas. And the show just finished its 5th season, which is longer than most real Hollywood shows.

Web video, due to its long tail nature, has the tendency to gather audiences of more specific demographics. These shows function with a smaller audience, but they become more valuable to the sponsor. My show The Burg gathered an audience of hipsters and influencers mostly based in New York. It’s the kind of audience TV shows desperately try to attract, but had not reliably done so. Sure, the show did not rack up the millions of views per episode that a TV show needs. That’s okay. We did not need it. We had a highly activated audience who, when we did do sponsorships, were much more accepting of our sponsors’ products.

Web TV will not be, in the future, about gathering the ‘most views’, but gathering the ‘best views’.
But it’s worth pointing out that putting any of this content behind a paywall, or tiered download situation where it didn’t stream quickly, that would have killed it. People would not have watched.
There are two more models I’d like to briefly discuss.

One is the audience-supported show. Take the show Anyone But Me. It’s a multiple award-winning show about a lesbian teenager and her struggles. It’s excellent. It tells a difficult story about a topic some would think is controversial. And it likely would never have been made on TV. They are able to make this show because they have an audience who is demanding it. Again, it’s a smaller audience, but they are so passionate about this show that they pay for it. Not per download – by donation.
But it’s tight. Profit margins are slim in both of these models. If we were charging Anyone But Me an extra fee to stream fast enough so that the audience can watch it, then they probably would not be able to make it.

Another model that is developing is even more interesting to me, as a small business owner: the local webseries scene.
Distribution is, at present, open to everyone. I can make a video and put it up – there are no walls between me and a prospective audience of millions. At the same time, the means of film production are accessible to everyone, with consumer-level editing software and digital cameras. This means that a webseries can be generated and created anywhere, for any audience. This is of course different from film and TV, where you have to be in LA or NY.

What we are seeing now is communities of content creators and webseries makers beginning to pop up in every state of the union. In places that never had any sort of film industry before, we suddenly see one popping up. And it can be sponsored by local advertisers. I point to one of the shows I’m involved in, Greg and Donny, which is about two guys just chatting about stuff going on in the small, post-industrial steel town Johnstown, PA. Now, that sounds like a very specific show that no one outside that town would want to watch, right? Well… stay tuned.

I believe in a few years, we will be seeing small town film scenes. Communities of webseries creators and vloggers from Maine to Utah. Decentralized micro-industries of creative professionals from Alabama to Wyoming. I believe we will see this… down the road.

But not if the road is too expensive to travel on.
Net neutrality is vital to keeping the lanes of communication open. The creative economy of the future depends on it. Thank you.
___________________

Writer and web video pioneer Thom Woodley created one of the first narrative web series “The Burg“, the Streamy and Webby nominated shows “The All-For-Nots“, “All’s Faire” and “Greg & Donny“, and is the founder of DIORAMA, a new web video channel aimed at programming television-quality independent content.

Location, Location, Location

My kids breaking story around the Southland writer’s table

My kids breaking story around the Southland writer’s table

For the 5 years I was on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, whose stages and offices were at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, my biggest complaint re location was that it was 4 long blocks to the nearest train. The Piers are as far west as you can go without needing a kayak and the closest street was the West Side Highway. After a long day at work, we’d have to walk two or more avenues before it was even worth sticking up our hands for a cab. And even farther to the A train. It seemed like such an inconvenience. Little could I have guessed that for my next job my commute home would be via the redeye from Burbank on JetBlue.

After my year off, I told my agent I wanted to staff again. With 3 kids, a stay-at-home husband and a mortgage, my personal hiatus turned out to be quite expensive. The job market in NYC for primetime dramas is intensely small. There were only one or two shows that had their writing staffs in New York, even though they were filmed here. This is the dirty little secret about shows set in New York. Most of them are written in Los Angeles. Current shows like “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order: SVU” (until recently), “CSI: NY,” “Gossip Girls,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar,” “Castle,” etc may film on our local streets and avenues, but their writers are holed up in sunny offices on the Fox, Universal, Warner Bros or Paramount studio lots in and around L.A. “Mad Men” – so iconic in its portrayal of glamorous 1960-70s New York, is not only written but filmed on stages located in hardscrabble downtown L.A.

So, it became clear that I was going to have to take a job in that sunny city. Having lived in L.A. for that almost year I was on “The West Wing,” I knew it would always be a fun place to visit, but not where I wanted to raise my family. My reasons are completely personal to me and no offense to anyone who finds it a wonderful place to live. I just can’t deal with the idea of having two cars and driving everywhere. A cab ride home is a luxurious option on a lazy day, but no matter where I am in NYC I can always take the train. But when I was offered a job on the new NBC series “Southland” about the Los Angeles Police Department, I have to admit, I was thrilled. It was innovative, gritty, brash and totally compelling. I wanted in.

“Southland” had had a highly-acclaimed 6-episode first season and had been renewed for a second season with a “let’s give it a shot” 13-episode order and an option for the back 9. I watched the first season on my laptop in The Writer’s Room in Greenwich Village and was blown away. I then walked 3 blocks to meet “Southland” creator Ann Biderman at the Dean and Deluca on University Place. Ann is a longtime New Yorker despite spending lots of time in L.A., especially to research “Southland.” We had a great chat, interrupted a few times by Ann’s friends and neighbors saying hi, confirming plans to spend the weekend in the Hamptons. Two weeks later, I was sitting across from Ann in a conference room in John Wells’ office on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Next to me were Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess, the husband-wife writing team, whose Village apartment was just blocks from Ann’s, and next to them sat Nathan Louis Jackson, fellow playwright and my Brooklyn neighbor. The irony! Here we were eating Poquito Mas takeout in the Valley on a staff that consisted largely of New Yorkers! (There were 2 other writers who were Angelenos). And you know I fantasized about how fabulous it would be if we were actually in some dank and dingy office in Chelsea or even Greenpoint, Brooklyn instead of the swanky environs we had in Burbank. But we were there for a variety of good reasons which ranged from access to the cops whose lives we were chronicling — to L.A. is where the studio and network wanted us. Funnily enough, we rarely went to set because with such a small staff we just didn’t have the time to produce our episodes. We were always either breaking story, writing an outline or writing one of many drafts of our episode (neither Ann nor John took showrunner passes. I would put a heart emoticon here if I were the emoticon type.)

Kids discovering the best kept secret of any t.v. show – the writer’s pantry

Discovering the best kept secret of any t.v. show – the writer’s pantry

My family came and spent July and August with me in a furnished sublet in Larchmont, but come September when it was back-to-school time, they went back to Brooklyn without me. I would fly home on the redeye Friday nights and fly back to Burbank on the first flight out Monday morning. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s what we did. That is, until I got a phone call from Ann one Thursday afternoon while I sat in my friend’s backyard writing the second draft of my second episode. I thought she was checking on me, making sure I was on track to turn it in on time. And the truth is, I was behind. Would have to pull an all-nighter to get it done. But Ann had something completely unexpected to say.

What Do You Get When You Put Writers in a Room…

“So, do you guys all sit around a table and write the scripts together?”

Writers Diana Son and Charlie Rubin

Diana Son and Charlie Rubin (Law and Order: Criminal Intent)

People used to ask me this and I’d wonder where they got this idea. “The Dick Van Dyke Show”? It couldn’t have been farther from our reality on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”. Not only did we not have a table around which we could all SIT, let alone write scripts together —we didn’t even have a writer’s room. That’s right. No room at the inn. Our showrunner believed in his writers’ abilities to, well, write and that’s what he wanted us to do. It requires a completely different skill set to be able to pitch ideas out loud, respond to other people’s ideas spontaneously, and to cobble together story lines in your head or on a marker board than it does to write. Not to discount that method, many writers do excel at it. Some have reputations for being “great in the room.” I have heard some shows rely on the writer’s room so much they even have exercise equipment in them! But Rene Balcer was not one to have his writers toss out motives for murder while sweating it out on the elliptical.

Instead, each writer met individually with Rene to break story – based on an idea we brought to him or one that he offered to us. Sure, L&O shows are “ripped from the headlines” and we often came in with articles from newspapers, magazines, foreign newspapers we’d found online, etc. But the headline story would serve the purpose of setting the episode in motion. It was just a jumping off point. We couldn’t surprise, unnerve or reward the viewer if we merely added dialogue to stories whose endings they knew. We would twist the story away from the original headline story.

For example, Marlane Gomard Meyer’s episode “Happy Family” was loosely based on the murder of investment banker Ted Ammon. He was found bludgeoned to death in his East Hampton home while in the middle of a divorce and bitter custody battle with his wife. In the end, it was his wife’s plumber-boyfriend with the mile-long rap sheet who was ultimately found to be the killer. We would never do that. In Marlane’s script, the estranged wife’s boyfriend is looked at as a suspect, but so is the nanny, and the wife herself, but the killer turns out to be one of the couple’s adopted sons, who’d been brainwashed by his mother that when she died (she has terminal cancer), their father would send the boys back to the Ukrainian orphanage they’d come from.

Meeting one on one in Rene’s office we would spend hours talking about who the characters were so we would know why they did what they did. Characters that only appeared in one or two scenes still had complicated back stories. That’s what distinguished “Criminal Intent” from the other shows in the franchise. We were to explore the psychological motives of everyone involved. Even the red herrings had plausible, complicated reasons for killing the victim – even though they didn’t. After spending around two weeks breaking story with Rene in his office, we would go off and write our drafts. And when I mean off, I mean off-campus, off-site, off to wherever it was we were most comfortable writing. For some people it was home. For me, it was The Writers Room in the Village, a non-profit urban writer’s colony where writers of every persuasion – novelists, poets, journalists, etc — share a loft space partitioned into, one must say, rather attractive carrels. I discovered it in 1997 and have written every play, and just about every screenplay and TV script there ever since. It is my writing home. I’d email my scripts to Rene from The Writer’s Room and he’d fax the script back with notes. Meanwhile, he’d started meeting with the next writer “at bat.” That’s how I started to think of it. We were batters in a lineup. And it remains, several shows and years later, my favorite way of working.

But after 5 years at “Criminal Intent,” including 2 years under the showrunnership of Warren Leight, the friend who first mentioned the job opening to me so many years ago, I decided to leave. I took a year off to hang out with my kids – including newborn twins – and work on (and not finish) a spec pilot. By the time I was ready to go back on a writing staff, I was to find out that getting on a show in NYC was not going to be as easy as running into a friend on the 1 train.

Story and Structure

“Euripides in Museos Vaticanos” by serguei_2k

Is plot dead?

I had a recent argument with a playwriting student who thought it was. It wasn’t just plot that was dead. She told me that the whole concept of character-driven narrative structure in dramatic writing, the so-called “well-made story”, was out-of-date, bourgeois and boring.

Actually, to say we were “arguing” is putting it strongly; I teach in a low-residency MFA program, and so our discussion was not only quite civil, it was quaintly epistolary, conducted via letters over several weeks. What’s more, this student is no kid. She’s also smart as a whip and has worked as a theater professional around the world. She’s mulled about this kind of thing for years. And so I gave serious thought to what she had to say. In the end, I still disagreed.

By the end of the semester, we may not have seen things eye-to-eye. But she taught me a lot about postmodern theatre and I read a bunch of plays I hadn’t read before, many of which I thought were terrific. I also like to hope I convinced her, even a little, of the continuing power of that ancient (I would actually say hardwired) form, the well-told story. Most important, because I had to defend my position, the exchange made me think hard about something I’ve spent years taking for granted: the importance of that strange thing we call narrative structure.

Every writer in the guild – screenwriters, TV writers, news writers – depends on structure. It’s our go-to weapon, our primary tool of choice: kind of like our t-square/hammer/calculator/Singer sewing machine, all rolled into one. Without a solid structure, a story, any story, slowly collapses in on itself like an improvised Lego suspension bridge. I’d go so far as to paraphrase Thomas Edison and say that good writing is 1% inspiration and 99% structure. Sure, dialogue is important; but like everything, it serves the story. And story is basically all about structure.

Structure, of course, isn’t some kind of rigid code, a one-size-fits-all Iron Maiden into which one must cram one’s genius. Good writers are constantly tinkering with structure, which arises from specific characters, their situation, their wants, and their problems. Good story structure, after all, can be anything: it can be loopy and deconstructed; it can turn chronology inside out, shatter the fourth wall, break reality, and be as full of surprises, misdirections, and dead ends as a moonlit neighborhood in Venice, the kind you chase a murderous dwarf through because you’re convinced it’s a kid in a red raincoat. So what makes structure good? As has been said of music, if it sounds good, it is good. If the structure makes organic sense with the story that’s being told, if it drives the action… then it’s good. If you’re riveted to your chair, if you keep your hand off the clicker, if the ending resonates so much that you’re still talking about it weeks later… then whoever the writer is, she or he has earned that paycheck.

Non-Fiction Writers Producers UnitedRecently, some WGAE colleagues and I were talking with a room full of producers/writers who work in non-fiction TV—(this means shows like The First 48, Steven Seagal: Lawman or Four Weddings) mostly for cable. One producer/writer was talking about a show she works on, which features a medical pathologist who performs autopsies. A colleague of mine said she was a fan of the show and that she was always delighted there was a surprise ending, a twist at the end she hadn’t expected. The producer/writer gave a wry smile and said, “Yeah… because we put it there.” Of course, it’s something we all knew intellectually… and yet there it was a visceral reminder in a specific example. The producer/writers of nonfiction TV are masters of story structure, the same as the rest of us; and they deserve to join our ranks and get a union contract.

Jim Jones and Our Stumbling Leader

I kind of feel bad for America’s children, kind of. You see, growing up in my house, the evening news was a given, five nights a week. Dinnertime was always 5:30 P.M. You had to be home, no questions asked. If you were late, you had better have a really good excuse. On school nights, dinner was followed by homework, while starting at 6:00 P.M. my father would commandeer the television to watch the local and national news. At the time, we had four options, and one was PBS in really poor quality.

Writing this makes me realize how much of my youth involved being forced to watch something I did not choose. I am the youngest of nine, which topped out at seven living in the house at the same time during my formative years. I could tell you anything that was happening on Dallas or Knots Landing. I knew who Luke and Laura were and understood when my mother and sisters would talk about them as if they were neighbors. However, when it came to real TV drama, you had to look no further than the news.

My first memories include the much-talked-about clumsiness of President Gerald Ford and the 900-plus people drinking the
“Kool-Aid” in Guyana. The latter, of course, being the image most burned into my brain. I believe at 9 years old, it both frightened and enthralled me. The idea that so many people could let one person direct them to take their own lives was weird and thankfully far away. I don’t recall anyone in my family trying to fully explain the breadth of the scene at the time, but I do remember knowing it was bad.

Throughout the years, my household changed for various reasons and, I should take this moment to point out, never included cable television (to be blamed on my father’s tight wallet). The routine of watching news continued for years to come. I’m sure I didn’t realize then how it was shaping my career path. I learned to be inquisitive. I was even voted biggest gossip in my high school, an honor I wear proudly now as a badge of my journalistic abilities but at the time completely mortified me.

Once I hit college and started hanging around those crazy folks who had CNN and Headline News, I was love-struck. I said, “That’s my calling,” and immediately changed my major from secondary education, never looking back. When they brought the first Gulf War into our living rooms—well, not mine but someone else’s—I was smitten.

I know it makes me sound somewhat old, but here’s why I worry about the kids today. There are so many choices on television. If you meet a family that doesn’t have cable, you’d give them the stink eye. There are few families that sit down and have dinner together and then turn on the TV the way we used to.

Every time a big event happens, e.g., September 11, those of us in the industry think, Well, this is going to change things for good. It wasn’t long afterward that we returned to doing stories about fallen starlets stumbling drunk out of limos with no knickers on and waterskiing squirrels. I blame the attention span brought on by the so-called MTV generation. If I can’t blame that, I have to blame parenting, and if I can’t blame that, I have to blame an oversaturation of “news” on cable TV. It makes me think that someone down the road is going to look back and say, “The first thing I remember seeing on the news is when Lindsay Lohan went to jail.”

Dialogue for One

Sign for a laundry called Soap Opera by Brent Moore/SeeMidTN.com

by Brent Moore/SeeMidTN.com

I’m amazed by the questions I’m asked when I tell someone I write for a soap opera.  What’s surprising is that they’re almost always the same questions and never questions I was asked when I wrote for prime time.  The first is, “How far in advance do you write?”  For producers, the answer would probably be, “Not far enough.”  For writers, it’s, “Too far.”  The time between writing the breakdown (the outline from which a script is written) and the air date varies a little from show to show, but generally it’s 10 to 12 weeks.  Producers like as much time as possible to handle the business of putting together a show. But with that much lag time, writers may introduce a new character and write for him or her for nearly three months before ever seeing them on the air.  I’m not sure why this subject piques people’s curiosity, but that’s my cocktail party answer.

The second question is, “How do you come up with the stories?”  The short answer is, “Every way conceivable.”  Some stories are inspired by news items – a returning soldier coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, a governor hiding his homosexuality, a woman dealing with infertility and surrogacy.  Some stories come from the characters themselves.  Bringing back a character who was once in love with a woman now married to his brother … well, you can see the possibilities.  In some cases the source is literary – take, for example, the story of a power hungry assistant convincing his boss that his wife is having an affair, leading to tragedy.  Does the name Othello ring a bell?

The most common and most baffling question I get is, “So, do you just write for one character and one storyline?”  I have no idea how this myth started but I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked.  I’ve tried to wrap my head around how it would work.  Imagine that “my character” is a young woman, Mireille.  The story I’m writing is about her search for the man who killed her sister.  An associate is writing for Rico, a doctor finding the courage to love again after a painful event in his past.  A meeting between these characters might go something like this:

MIREILLE
It was you all along!  My sister loved you, she trusted you, but all you ever wanted was to take over
the company.  You killed her, I know that now!  And so do the police.

RICO
Will you marry me?

Actually, everyone on the team of writers for a daytime serial writes for every character in every story.  On any given day there can be three or more overlapping stories and twelve or more characters whose lives intertwine.  Writing for only one character … well, I think that’s called a monologue.
Lately, the question I’m most often asked is, “Will soap operas survive?”  When I started writing for daytime, doom and gloomers told me soap operas would be dead in five years.  That was fifteen years ago.  Granted, there are far fewer soaps now than there were then.  Women are out working, the target audience isn’t home during the day, and with a DVR, it’s no longer necessary to be home when a show airs. There’s competition from hundreds of cable channels.  It’s a rough time for the daytime industry.  But the numerous blogs and websites devoted to soaps, the magazines for daytime viewers and the fan mail we get tell me people still love their shows.  They want continued drama.  They want soap operas.  But that doesn’t answer the question.  When people ask if soaps will survive, I can only say, “I sincerely hope so.”

¡Viva las telenovelas!

Telenovela billboard in Portugal

photo by Jaan-Cornelius K.

Some years ago, a Peruvian man who heard I wrote for “One Life to Live” told me he’d learned English by watching the show.  When I started studying Spanish a few years ago, I decided to follow his lead and reinforce my Spanish lessons by watching a telenovela.

I began my foray into this literally foreign territory with a show called “Mundo de Fieras” (“World of Wild Ones”) because it was just beginning and aired at a convenient time in the evening.  I confess I understood very little dialogue in the premiere episode – ¡Ay, caramba! They talked fast! – but I was basically able to follow what was happening on screen.  It was about a struggle between twin brothers (I guessed the smiling one with a loving family was good and the snarling one with the eye patch was evil), and about their love for two women (I supposed the brunette leaving a convent was good and the one with the heavy eye makeup and the long curly blonde extensions was evil). Within a couple of weeks I’d picked up some useful vocabulary, like the oft-repeated embarazada.   I wondered why one female character was constantly embarrassed, and why everyone else kept talking about her embarrassment until I understood that embarazada means “pregnant.”  I wasn’t learning quite as much Spanish as I’d hoped, but I was getting an education.  Though I knew telenovelas differed from American soap operas in that they aired for a finite time, generally six to nine months, and so progressed toward a predetermined conclusion, I discovered that the differences go far deeper.

Belly of pregnant woman

photo by Mahalie Stackpole

Perhaps the biggest difference is that while American soaps are struggling to keep their audience, telenovelas are watched by an estimated two billion people in a hundred countries.  What makes these shows so wildly successful?  From what I can tell by having now watched several different telenovelas, they’re pretty predictable; the star-crossed lovers introduced in the first episode will get together in the last, the villain will be punished.  The “good” characters will find their faith in God rewarded, the comic couple will marry.  There will be some public service message, like on one episode of “Destilando Amor” when every character recycled his or her trash in appropriate bins (yes, seriously).  Why, then, do viewers not only faithfully watch each episode of one telenovela but excitedly anticipate the premiere of the next one?  Is it just a cultural phenomenon?  Is it the structure of the telenovela itself, Dickensian in nature, a serialized drama with a satisfying ending?  Is it seeing the same actors in different roles – a chaste heroine in one show transformed into a murderous vixen in another?  (For example, actor Maurice Benard going from mob boss Sonny Corinthos on “General Hospital” to priest on a new show.)   Is it that telenovelas air not only in the daytime, but also in the evening, when there’s a greater audience at home to watch, both male and female?  Is it the variety these shows offer – one show may be a period piece, one a gritty urban drama, one a bodice-ripper romance?  And is it something American television producers can co-opt?

I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but as the American soap opera continues to struggle for survival, I think the producers of daytime television might be wise to look toward their cousins south of the border and study the secret of their success. As for me, I’m looking for the next telenovela to watch.  Bit by bit, my Spanish is improving.  But some things need no translation.  Whether it’s an American soap or a telenovela, if two characters are simultaneously embarazadas, there’s a 100% chance those babies are going to get switched.

Distractions

"USA v Algeria World Cup Match" image by jasonwhat

"USA v Algeria World Cup Match" image by jasonwhat

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so into the World Cup. I’m not much of a soccer fan, so why have I been glued to the TV during these games? Sure, there’s an element of national pride at stake – after all, I did get pretty into the Olympic hockey in February, even though I’m not much of a hockey fan at all. And ESPN has been promoting the hell out of the Cup, so my awareness of its existence has certainly been heightened. But most of all, I think I’m just a sucker for any sporting event that takes place during weekday mornings and afternoons. Most daytime TV is so unappealing to me that any semi-decent sporting event – March Madness, the Summer Olympics, the first couple days of a major golf tournament – almost always ropes me in.

Of course…I have a job. I’m supposed to be working during the day. Which means the World Cup has the potential to be something of a distraction.. So, the big question: how do I keep distractions from becoming a problem? Well, like most anti-vuvuzela U.S. viewers, I can turn the sound off. That’s the great thing about sports (and, to a lesser extent, cable news) – you can watch it on mute and still get something out of it. Or, I could leave the sound on, and turn away from the TV. Enjoy those sarcastic British announcers calling France’s play “pathetic”! It’s like listening to talk radio or music while you work – it only requires part of your attention. Think of it like this: most of us can do two things at once, but three is a lot harder. Watching soccer and listening to soccer both take my attention. That doesn’t leave a lot of my brain for work.

Or, another idea: each hour, give myself 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted, sensory overload soccer time. When it’s over, devote myself fully to work. This has several benefits: it forces me to work without distractions, lets me enjoy the soccer fully (albeit on a reduced basis), and allows me to rationalize my soccer-watching as “clearing my head time”.

When working at home, I have a similar problem – I love to play online poker. (Don’t worry, my life savings are not at risk – I like to joke with my wife that while I do have the addictive gambling gene, I also have the cheapness gene, and they cancel each other out. Also, if I go to Vegas for a few days, she doesn’t have to worry about me being tempted by any strip clubs. I’ll be at the poker table the whole time.) Online poker is available to me 24-7, and, as it happens, involves being at my computer – yes, the very same computer I write on.

For a while, I thought I had come up with an ingenious solution. I would simultaneously write and play in a low-stakes online poker tournament. As long as the TV and web browser were shut off, this fulfilled my “one distraction maximum” rule – plus it kept me anchored to my seat and forced me to write. Eventually, however, I realized that I was not devoting my full attention to the writing. So now, I try to limit myself to no more than thirty minutes of online poker per day. This allows me to get in just enough action to fulfill my jones but not so much that it’s affecting the amount of work I get done.

We all have things that take our attention away from what we’re supposed to be doing. The key is figuring out a way to make sure that they only take away a tiny part of our attention – or, alternately, all of our attention for a tiny portion of our time.