Commentary

Watching TV Through The Overton Window

Tell me, does anyone else have a problem with this recent statement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler: “I am trying to build addicts -- and I want people addicted to something every week"?

I read this in a MediaPost column about a month ago. At the time, I filed it away as something vaguely troubling. I just checked and found no one else had commented on it. Nothing. We all collectively yawned as we checked out the next series to binge watch. That’s just what we do now.

When did enabling addiction become a goal worth shooting for? What made the head of a major entertainment corporation think it was OK to use a term that is defined as “persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to the user to be harmful” to describe a strategic aspiration? And, most troubling of all, when did we all collectively decide that that was OK?

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Am I overreacting? Is bulk consuming an entire season’s worth of "Game of Thrones" or "Big Little Lies" over a 48-hour period harmless?

Speaking personally, when I emerge from my big-screen basement cave after watching more than two episodes of anything in a row, I feel like crap. And there’s growing evidence that I’m not alone. I truly believe this is not a healthy direction for us.

But my point here is not to debate the pros and cons of binge watching. My point is that Plepler’s statement didn’t cause any type of adverse reaction. We just accepted it. And that may because of something called the Overton Window. 

The Overton Window was named after Joseph Overton, who developed the concept at a libertarian think tank  -- the Mackinac Center for Public Policy -- in the mid-1990s.

Typically, the term is used to talk about the range of policies acceptable to the public in the world of politics. In the middle of the window lies current policy. Moving out from the center in both directions (right and left) are the degrees of diminishing acceptability. In order, these are: Popular, Sensible, Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable.

The window can move, with ideas that were once unthinkable eventually becoming acceptable or even popular due to the shifting threshold of public acceptance. The concept, which has roots going back over 150 years, has again bubbled to the top of our consciousness thanks to Trumpian politics, which make "extreme things look normal," according to a post on Vox.

Political strategists have embraced and leveraged the concept to try to bring their own agendas within the ever-moving window. Because here’s the interesting thing about the Overton Window: If you want to move it substantially, the fastest way to do it is to float something outrageous to the public and ask them to consider it. Once you’ve set a frame of consideration towards the outliers, it tends to move the window substantially in that direction, bringing everything less extreme suddenly within the bounds of the window. 

This has turned The Overton Window into a political strategic tug of war, with the right and left battling to shift the window by increasingly moving to the extremes.

What's most intriguing about the Overton Window is how it reinforces the idea that much of our social sensibility is relative rather than absolute. Our worldview is shaped not only by what we believe, but what we believe others will find acceptable. Our perspective is constantly being framed relative to societal norms.

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- the CEO of HBO can now use the word “addict” when talking about entertainment because our perspective has been shifted toward an outlying idea that compulsive consumption is OK, or even desirable.

But I have to call bullshit on that. I don’t believe it’s OK. It’s not something we as an industry -- whether that industry is marketing or entertainment -- should be endorsing. It’s not ennobling us; it’s enabling us.

There's a reason why the word “addict” has a negative connotation. If our “window” of acceptability has shifted to the point where we just blithely accept these types of statements and move on, perhaps it’s time to shift the window in the opposite direction.   

11 comments about "Watching TV Through The Overton Window".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, January 2, 2018 at 12:33 p.m.

    So what's the interpretation of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love"?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcATvu5f9vE

  2. Sara Madsen from ROI Influencer Media, January 2, 2018 at 1:41 p.m.

    I also feel awful after a binge of ANYTHING. Drinks, food, TV, etc. I agree with you, Gord, this should not be something we all of a sudden are OK with and promote. We have a big responsibility in the advertising and entertainment industries to empower people with information and entertainment. When used to make us better (say, binging Ted Talks??) we can be better at criticial thinking and taking care of one another. I am sad to see addiction being used so flippantly. And to add to another point you made, I don't even care about the new originals that come out anymore - its all too much. Total overload. We actually need more scarcity! 

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 2, 2018 at 5:06 p.m.

    You are so correct. We desperately need to learn history and take the steps necessary to prevent the Fourth Reich. Collapse happens when nobody notices or does anything about the small things. Perhaps the CEO needs a demotion to the mailroom.

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 3, 2018 at 1:29 p.m.

    "Binge viewing", as positioned by some people as the new "norm" in TV/video viewing, is something that happens once in a while for some viewers and almost never for many others. So when the HBO guy talks about getting people "addicted", he is pandering to that greatly over hyped "binge viewing" fantasy which is not the new norm at all. For example, the average Netflix subscribing adult probably watches about 50-55 minutes of Netflix content daily, yet many people think of Netflix as the "binge viewing" channel. If it really was true that most Netflix viewers watched episode after episode of its various series daily, why aren't they spending comensurate time doing so. You can only watch so many episodes per day for 50-55 minutes. Now, if someone thinks about  "correcting" me by talking about streaming time----which is between 1.5-2.0 hours daily for Netflix subs---- don't bother. At best, that's a set usage stat, not a personal viewing stat. My point is, not to worry, Gord. Very few people will become "binge viewing"  to the point of "addiction"---a very poor word choice, I agree. Very few of us have that much time on their hands and there's very, very little suitable content to lure us into an "addiction" day after day.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 3, 2018 at 6:36 p.m.

    Some people get addicted to one opiode prescription. Some do not. Which ones ?

  6. Esther Dyson from EDventure replied, January 3, 2018 at 8:23 p.m.

    Often those who had troubled childhoods or other trauma that rendered them vulnerable.

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, January 8, 2018 at 2:29 p.m.

    Esther, I am sure you mean well, but you are so troubling wrong, wrong, wrong and therein lies a major problem.

  8. Esther Dyson from EDventure replied, January 8, 2018 at 11:07 p.m.

    Paula Lynn - Please elaborate on why I am so wrong and what would be right

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, January 9, 2018 at 4:26 p.m.

    This forum and MediaPost is not the place to have that discussion and point out that a belief system is not fact.

  10. Esther Dyson from EDventure replied, January 12, 2018 at 10:39 a.m.

    Paula Lynn -

    I'm trying to be a good listener and so i'd be happy to engage 1-1 on email.  edyson at edventure.com

  11. Suzanne Sell from Independent, January 3, 2018 at 8:42 p.m.

    I don't think he's referring to binge viewing at all. HBO'S revenues come from ongoing subscriptions, which mean that ad log as there's a series available that can attract a wide range of viewers every week, the money piles up. It has nothing to do with the manner in which a series is watched. In fact, it'd to the network's advantage for a second barrier to watch in a more sedate manner. Contrast that to the OTT services, which toss out all eps of a series at once. Subscribers can gorge on a whole season in just a few days, and then are hungry for something new--requiring these services to spend more and more money on new content to retain subs.
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