Time is a commodity, watchtime doubly so

Oh, give me strength. I have been obsessed with time as a writer for my entire life – you can see that theme in just about every fiction I write. And I’ve been panicked about time for just as long – I may even be chronophobic, I’m so constantly anxious about not having achieved anything, not being ready, not being good enough yet in this frustratingly short lifespan we have.

And now I’ve only gone and found a new time to think about.

It’s called watchtime, perhaps you know it already.

My 58keys YouTube series has six episodes, totalling 58 minutes and 31 seconds, so far. A few hundred people have watched, which is great, and reportedly they have in total watched 22 hours of it. Actually, 21 hours and 58 minutes.

Compare that to the millions of hours of watchtime other shows get and it’s rubbish. Compare it to the zero watchtime hours I had before I made the show, and it’s amazing.

And if you do what I appear to be doing now, it’s dizzying. I think about that watchtime, I check it a lot, but I also think about the individual running times of each episode, I think about when I am or am not using that time well, I’m thinking about the watchtime compared to how long any one or all of the episodes have taken to make. I’m thinking about the next two episodes which I finished last weekend and will publish in one and two weeks. I’m thinking about the social media that I wrote when I finished each episode and is currently scheduled to automatically post when the show is published. I’m thinking about when the best time for all of this is.

Watchtime, calendar time, production time, durations, time of day, day of week, time as a commodity and a tool, time it takes to edit, best times to shoot because of the lighting, best days to shoot because I’m not committed to something else but I am also not so knackered that I’m incoherent, time as a barrier – I’d like to be further ahead with episodes but that takes time I haven’t quite got yet. Plus I really need to fit in a haircut.

All of this time has a shape. I’ve got an hour of 58keys now, but that’s split across six videos. When you’re doing an actual hour, one 60-minute something, you’re thinking about the top of the hour and the bottom, you’re thinking about what works at the start, how it must end, you’re shaping the minutes. I am doing the same with these 8- to 17-minute episodes. (I worried so much about the 17-minute one being too long, but it’s by far the most popular episode so far. By far.)

Nobody watching should ever think about this, but when making it I am deeply conscious of every second. I’m not saying I’m any good at each second, I’m telling you I lie awake at night deciding to reshoot whole episodes because I can convey the information better or at least faster.

And my favourite part of all this so far is video editing. Sitting in front of Final Cut Pro X at midnight, looking at one minute of me talking, comparing that to the episode’s duration so far, and realising that with a single cutaway mid-sentence to something else, I can ditch 45 seconds of me and make the world a better place.

So now there’s real time, there’s me sitting in the dark, and there’s the duration of the video as recorded, the duration of the video as edited, and all these minutes of trims taken away from it.

In the olden days, thousands and thousands of years ago, there was when the sun came up and when the sun went down. Now there’s all this.

Look at what we do. Look at how much we try to wedge in to our days, and how much we can treat time as this product we shape and sell. And yet there isn’t a single thing we can do to make even one extra second of time.

I could grow an ulcer from how much I worry about time and it isn’t funny that the obvious solution is to take some time off.

Skip

I’m not sure now whether it’s my age or just the age that we live in. But really often, I’ll start watching something and there will be an advert first, with a countdown. We never used to have countdowns or progress bars, but now we do and typically it says something like “your video will play in 10 seconds, 9, 8…”

And I’m exasperated at having to wait six more seconds.

I mean, I know I’m busy, but now five seconds, four, come on.

Some ads have to be played to the end –– and actually, if you’re on YouTube, for instance, the YouTuber only gets paid if the whole ad is seen –– but others do have that skip feature.

“You can skip in four, 3, for god’s sake how long is 2, 1…”

Back when we had terrestrial TV but DVRs had come in so that you could pause live television and then fast-wind through the ads, I thought advertisers missed a trick. Someone, surely, should’ve done an ad that only made sense when seen played at 20 times normal speed.

But today’s advertisers have caught on. They know you’re going to skip, so they front-load the first six or ten seconds of the ad with the best bit they can.

The first ten seconds of an advert are now like a pilot episode of a series. They come in fast, establish the characters, make their point and hope that you want to stick around for the next episode or, in this case, the next twenty seconds.

And just as with TV pilots, you’re now seeing a range of approaches. There’s the big, splashy, look-at-me flashy advert. But over time, we’ve started to get ones that are more slow, subtle, and gently seductive ones. And the ones that will stop me tapping on Skip tend to be ones with characters talking.

Both TV drama and adverts need to get your attention and then they want to persuade you to do something. With drama, it’s to keep watching and please come back for episode 2. With adverts, it’s stop watching videos and go buy something.

Adverts are meant to be a punch to your attention and drama wants to move in with you. But in both cases, I think there’s friction between grabbing your eyes and then keeping your brain.

And – this could well just be me – I think in both cases the makers get one shot. I could be wrong, and I may be unfair. Especially as at the moment I appear to be being hounded by ads for SquareSpace and I’ve been through the stages of shrugging, harrumphing and on into thinking I might look into them the next time I do a website.

But usually, if I’ve skipped an ad the first time I see it, I skip it every time.

And it’s exactly as hard to get me to come back for the second episode of a show. I understand, for instance, that Luther is a good series, but it lost me on episode 1. Maybe you remember the show better than I do, but I recall there being an impossible crime and if was ever even solved, the real conclusion was that the person who did it is an incredible criminal mastermind of evil.

But I’m sitting there thinking even I could’ve done that exact same crime and been back home in time for lunch. That meant the criminal mastermind of evil wasn’t much cop and the lead police detective character was no cop.

I’d have kept watching if that had been deliberate, but I was supposed to admire both characters and so I simply never watched another minute.

Grief. That was ten years ago. I just looked it up to see how many episodes I haven’t watched – 19 out of the 20, as it happens – and the first one aired in May 2010.

Who could’ve imagined even a decade ago that today episodes would also end with “Next episode begins in 10, 9, 8…”?

As I write this to you, the next Self Distract is in 606,300 seconds. 606,299. 606,298… You could kill a few seconds by joining my new mailing list or perhaps by buying one of my books or Doctor Who radio dramas. I’d be fine with either.

Surprise and Demand

Last night I was laughing at the script to an episode of The Detectorists. Really shaking, weeping, guffawing. This kind of couch behaviour gets noticed when someone else is trying to watch The Doctor Blake Mysteries. But then it leads to information in the many ad breaks on the Alibi channel.

Toby Jones co-stars in The Detectorists and my wife Angela Gallagher, who has the most amazing knowledge of casts, told me that he’s just become patron of Claybody Theatre, the tremendous company founded by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson.

So far this is all current, topical, present-day stuff but then she tells me that Toby Jones is the son of Freddie Jones and I am instantly right back to the mid-1970s when I was a child watching him in The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter.

You’ve had this, you’ve been thrown back to something and doubtlessly someone watching Motley Hall at the time was drawn to remember seeing Freddie Jones in 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

Only, that 1970s viewer being reminded of a 1960s film could do nothing more than be reminded of it. Whereas no sooner than Doctor Blake had saved the day than we were actually watching the first episode of The Ghosts of Motley Hall.

It’s far from true that any film or show you can think of is available for you to watch immediately, but it feels as if it is. Last week I bought the first seasons of St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. Earlier this week, a friend was looking for recommendations for something to watch before her Amazon Prime trial ran out and I spent an hour trying to find the name of something I’d relished on it.

An hour.

It took forty seconds to go from Doctor Blake to a 1976 episode of Motley Hall but an hour to get a film –– solely because I couldn’t remember its name. Even when I did find it and I did recommend it to my friend, I knew I’d forget the title again so I just bought it on iTunes.

That was Your Sister’s Sister by writer/director Lynn Shelton and it is more than worth the hour I spent looking. Not only because I relish that film and have just watched it again, but also because my prodding searches online for what detail I could recall of this film also turned up a movie called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Now, I know that movie under another title, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, and it’s one I delight in that’s written and directed by Eric Rohmer.

We are at the stage where a stray recollection is instantly satisfied. Where a small whim is filled in a thrice. And where to find something to watch, you no longer use Radio Times, you use Google.

It makes my mind split in two different directions. One is to think that who has time for broadcast telly any more? Television is like a delivery mechanism now, it’s a way of getting Fleabag ready for us. Television and film have become the libraries we dip into instead of the live, shared experience it was.

I can’t help but lament how everyone, simply everyone, watched when André Previn was on The Morecambe and Wise Show. Yet I can’t help but adore the fact that everyone, simply everyone, can watch that segment right now.

Well, that link is to a site called Dailymotion which currently thinks that after watching a 1971 Morecambe and Wise sketch I will want to see Miley Cyrus topless. The internet, eh?

And, well, there isn’t half an issue about the rights to this and all these creators not being paid while sites are getting ad revenue from showing them. That’s enormous. I bought My Sister’s Sister, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere but if Motley Hall is available to buy, I don’t know because I just saw it on YouTube.

The other direction my mind goes in, though, is this. Motley Hall was 43 years ago. When Peter Tork died recently, I watched the first episode of The Monkees and that was 53 years ago.

Imagine being back then in 1966 and able to watch anything you liked from 1913. Or living in 1913 and being able to watch something from 1860.

We have an unprecedented, unimaginable, incomprehensible ability to instantly taste our own culture as it was during the last half a century. Well, okay, we’re all chiefly locked to our own nation’s culture: it presumably is possible to do the same and watch any film from, say, India’s last five decades but I don’t know how to do it and those movies would be a sea to me without any markers or references or memories.

And of course this ability is locked to films and television, occasionally some radio. It only shows you what was being shown, it doesn’t really take you back in time. Except that of course it does: The Ghosts of Motley Hall has an innocence I can miss and a slow pace we lack today too.

Equally, On the Buses is about to be released on DVD for its fiftieth anniversary. The only thing more certain that this show captured its time is that I ain’t going to watch it.

We all make things for now, I don’t think anyone makes drama or comedy with much of an eye to the future beyond possible sales to different broadcasters and platforms. Yet this is mass of visual work is making me conscious both of how anything I make must be unconsciously imbued with the time that I make it –– and of how we must surely run out of room some day.

Maybe we’ll have to move to Mars just because there’s no more space to store all the episodes of NCIS.

Or videos of Miley Cyrus.