Why Our Brains Love TV

Forrester Research analyst Shar VanBoskirk has pegged 2019 as the year when digital ad spend will surpass TV, topping the $100 billion mark. This is momentous in a number of ways, but not really surprising. If you throw all digital marketing in a single bucket, it was a question of when, not if, it would finally surpass TV. What is more surprising to me is how resilient TV has proven to be as an advertising medium. After all, we’re only a little more than a decade away from the 100th anniversary of broadcast TV (which started in 1928). TV has been the king of the media mountain for a long time.

So, what is it about TV that has so captured us for so long? What is it about the medium that allows our brains to connect to it so easily?

Two Most Social Senses: Sight and Sound

Even as digital overtakes broadcast and cable television, we’re still mesmerized by the format of TV. Our interaction with the medium has shifted in a few interesting ways -- time-shifting, binge-watching, and the creation of new platforms to watch it on -- but our actual interaction with the format itself hasn’t changed very much, save for continual improvements in fidelity. It’s still sight and sound delivered electronically.  And for us, that seems to be a very compelling combination. Despite some thus-far failed attempts to introduce another sense or dimension into the sight/sound duopoly, our brains seem to naturally default back to a relatively stable format of sound and two-dimensional images.



It’s no coincidence that these are the same two senses we rely on most heavily to connect with the outside world. They allow us to scan our environments “at-a-distance,” picking up cues of potential threats or rewards so we can then use our other senses to interact with something more intimately. Smell, taste and touch are usually “close-up” senses relied on only when sight and sound have given the “all-clear” signal to our brains. For this reason, our brains have some highly developed mechanisms that allow us to parse the world through sight and sound – particularly sight. For example, the fusiform gyrus is a part of our brain that is dedicated to categorizing forms we see and fitting them into categories our brain recognizes. It’s this part of our brain that allows us to recognize faces and fit them into understandable categories such as friends, enemies, family, celebrities, etc.

These are also the two senses we use most often in social settings. If it weren’t for sight and sound, our ability to interact with each other would be severely curtailed. This offers another clue. Television is a good fit with our need to socialize. Sight and sound are the channel inputs to empathy. Our mirror neurons are activated when we see somebody else doing something. That’s why the saying is “Monkey see, monkey do,” and not “Monkey taste, monkey do.” These two senses are all we really need to build a fairly rich representation of the world and create emotional connections to it.

We Want Immersion, But Not Too Much Immersion

So, if the combination of sight and sound seems to be a good match with our mechanisms for understanding the world, why has “more” not proven to be “better"? Why, for instance, have 3D and interactive TV not caught on to the extent forecast?

I think we’ve developed a comfortable balance with TV.  Remember, sight and sound are generally used as “at-a-distance” parsers of our world. Because of the sheer volume of visual and auditory information coming through these channels, the brain has learned to filter input and only alert us when further engagement is required. If our brain had to process all the visual information available to it, it would overload to the point of breakdown. So while we want to be engaged in whatever we’re watching on TV, we aren’t looking to be totally immersed in it. This is why we have the multiscreen/multitasking behaviors emerging that are quickly becoming the norm while we watch TV.  3D or interactive TV both add a dimension of focal attention that isn’t necessary to enjoy a TV show.

The Concept of “Durable” Media

It’s interesting that as technology advances, every so often a media format emerges that is what I would call “durable.” It’s information or entertainment presented in a format that is a good cognitive match for our preferences and abilities. Even if technology is capable of adding “more” to these media, over time it turns out that “more” isn’t perceived as “better.” 

Books are perhaps the most durable of media. The basic format of a book has been digitized, but our interaction with a book doesn’t look much different than it did in Gutenberg’s day. It’s still printed words on a page. Television also appears to be a durable medium. The format itself is fairly stable. It’s the revenue models that are built around it that will evolve as time goes on.

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