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The Future of Television Will Be Shaped by Viewer Intention, Not Attention

At first by circumstance, and now by design, this is how I organize my television diet: couch shows and phone shows.

It’s well known by now that Americans have changed the way they watch TV.  People pull content from Hulu rather than have it pushed to us by CBS. DVRs allow for shifted viewing times and skipping ads. But those behaviors are just surface manifestations of a deeper transformation in modern media habits. Consumers are now, often unconsciously, sorting every media product—from podcasts to magazine stories to video—into three categories: intentional, interstitial, and invisible. The implications of these changes are huge, especially for the people who create what we watch.

Intentional media are the handful of offerings that we plan in advance to experience and then carve out particular chunks of time to enjoy. For me, these are the couch shows like Better Call Saul and very little else. Interstitial media, meanwhile, constitutes a far larger category. This is programming we use to fill the spaces in our lives—10 minutes in a grocery store line, 5 minutes waiting to pick up a kid at practice, 35 minutes on a train or bus. For me, these are the articles saved on Instapaper, audiobooks, and phone shows like Billions, which I enjoy immensely but have never seen inside my own home and have rarely watched in segments longer than a half hour. Invisible media, finally, is the largest category of all—the stuff we never see, that we’re scarcely aware even exists.

Examining the media ecosystem through these three lenses—which focus less on the technologies of distribution and more on the patterns of consumption—yields new clues about both the economics of media and the design principles of its creation. For example, economists and consultants have long pushed the idea of an “attention economy.”

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