Like many people, I split work between office and home. And like many people, my office recently converted to an “open seating” plan. There are no individual offices — we all sit at long benches with dual screens and movable laptops.
Fair enough. Cramming that many people into one big room saves a lot of money on rent. And I actually like turning to my colleagues and opining every time a stray thought comes into my head (although I’m not sure how much they welcome the distraction).
As it happens, my work station has a direct line of sight to a television monitor constantly tuned to CNBC. On my first morning there, I glanced up and said, “Huh, that guy looks just like Andrew Ross Sorkin. He’d been The New York Times beat reporter for one of my clients fifteen years ago, and we’d been pretty familiar with each other for a about year, but not so much since then. Sure enough, a Wikipedia search confirmed that I’d somehow failed to notice he’d been been a “Squawk Box” co-host for FIVE YEARS! Oops.
Among all the time-wasters available to me — Facebook, Twitter, email, the beeps on my smartphone — nothing is as distracting as having CNBC directly in my face. Even though the volume is off, I haven’t been able to train myself not to glance from the computer to the TV every thirty seconds.
What makes the problem worse is that the news on CNBC is so compelling. Not the interviews, which I can’t hear anyway, but the crawl across the bottom with the stock market tickers. As the proud holder of a 401K, I have a direct and urgent interest in the market’s performance. All it takes is a couple of days with 400-point plunges and I’m anxiously following the Dow Jones average for weeks.
I also find that I’m caught up in the silent dramas offered by CNBC advertisers. There’s a frequently played ad featuring two women of a certain age being interviewed about a matter of concern. Presumably health-related. Probably cancer. Given their haircuts and the absence of men, I’d assumed this was a lesbian couple and that one of the partners had breast cancer. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. Another Google search. I was right about the cancer but wrong about the relationship. They were sisters, and the one whom I thought was the patient — the one with the short gray hair — is actually the healthy one.
This raises an interesting question of how much CNBC should pay for those ad spots. For years, CNBC bitterly complained to Nielsen that it didn’t measure traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and CEOs with TVs in their offices who presumably were watching the station all day but out of the Nielsen sample. They had a point. Among a certain demographic — a particularly attractive demographic — CNBC was the default channel throughout the day.
And yet now that I find myself a daily CNBC viewer, I am somewhat less sympathetic to that argument. Yes, the TV is on all day, but the volume is off. Even if Nielsen did measure offices, its meters wouldn’t pick up this programming because the audio codes it embeds in the video stream only work if the sound is on.
By the way, I should mention that this problem is not limited to CNBC. I happen to be near a TV monitor tuned to CNBC, but our office also has monitors turned to CNN and Fox News, none of which have the volume up. So Nielsen is an equal opportunity offender.
There’s a business reason why television with no volume is not included in the ratings. Contrary to popular opinion, Nielsen doesn’t exist to tell us how many people are watching a TV show. Rather, their job is to tell networks and advertisers how many people are consuming the commercials. And there’s a legitimate question over whether a commercial that is seen but not heard is as valuable to an advertiser as one that actually is heard.
Having said that, I was interested enough to look up that cancer drug commercial about the two sisters, so there’s some value in viewing a silent ad. On the other hand, I can no longer remember the name of the drug — so maybe that value is not 100%. The difference between zero and 100% is obviously something for CNBC to negotiate with its advertisers.
If I were smarter, I’d ask to move to a workstation with my back to the monitor. But the truth is, I actually like being distracted and don’t want to move. Which is another sad commentary on the addictive quality of screens.