"Michael Albert Ashby, sit down and talk to us," Nancy, Mike's wife, chided.
"Just a minute," Mike said dismissively. "It's almost over." On the big screen, Jay Cutler either fumbled or threw an incomplete pass. It was impossible to tell because the sound was low. Mike gasped.
"I didn't even know he liked the Bengals," his wife confided to the rest of us.
"The Broncos," Mike corrected.
"Whatever," she sighed.
"That's because this is the first year he's had Jay Cutler on his fantasy team," interjected the hostess who stopped by to inform us our table was ready.
Even I admit that fantasy-football-induced television grazing is indefensible -- and that comes from someone who has said more than once with a straight face, "I watch 'Gossip Girls' because my cousin is the assistant director."
For those of you who are uninitiated, fantasy football involves picking particular players on various NFL teams who become part of your own "dream" team. When your player does something well, you get points. You compete with other owners who have assembled their own teams. Not long ago, the pursuit was difficult, tedious and geared toward sports-fanatical geeks. You tried to catch as many games as possible, learn who was playing well and meshing with their new teams. Then you formulated a strategy.
But in the last four or five years, the pastime has become much more mainstream, and the services that cater to the fantasy football realm have exploded. With all the inside information available online today, I am much more efficient than ever with regard to drafting, setting lineups and foraging the waiver wire.
But those efficiency gains have freed me to watch more NFL football, not less. Case in point, not only did I catch the outcome of Sunday's meaningless Chiefs and Raiders game, I recorded the contest bound and determined to ascertain how many times on third and long Tony Gonzalez was used as a decoy for the Chiefs. (I know I have lost more than half of the audience at this point, but if you have stayed with me for this long, please bear with me for a moment ...)
From a research perspective I find the phenomenon incredibly fascinating-what is it about the diversion that affects television viewership so drastically? Is there a corresponding pastime geared toward women? My wife and her mother are Food Network junkies. Whether it is Paula Dean, Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri or Giada De Laurentiis -- one of them seems to be on the tube almost every evening. And hardly a week does not go by that we don't enjoy recipes gleaned from the network's Web site. Certainly the fact that you can find the recipes online makes the network more appealing. But does the Internet/television connection change viewing habits? Where is the linear television draw?
It is this positive tug on television viewing that makes fantasy football unique from my perspective. Do people who play fantasy football watch more football on television? As I am writing this, the TV in my home office is tuned to the Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers game on NBC. Under normal circumstances, I would probably be watching "Fringe" with my wife in the family room. But because I have Jamal Lewis, Willie Parker and Santonio Holmes on my fantasy team, I am watching Al Michaels and John Madden call the game while Fox's new sci-fi thriller has been relegated to the DVR.
The impact cross-media consumption has on television viewership in the U.S. is a phenomenon we have struggled to understand. How many people play fantasy football -- WikiAnswers says the number is 30,000,000 worldwide -- and what is that impact on NFL viewership? How should an advertiser best leverage this engagement to promote brand messages? In the bigger picture, if fantasy football has changed audience behavior as much as I think it has, how are we as an industry going to study interactivity and its impact on viewing habits?
Questions like these need to be addressed sooner rather than later, and current panels are simply too small even to consider. Maybe we can get the operators to loosen the strings on their set-top box data purse? Or perhaps AT&T might donate some of its iPhone, internet and television data to shed light on the subject? The future has arrived with entertainment present on multiple screens with viewership intertwined and content shared. The industry must find a solution, or advertisers will put their money elsewhere. The future of television depends on it.