Couch potatoes, television consumption and museum visitation

couch-potato-saying-cartoon-vector-1830668Just when I was thinking about a workshop I’m running next week, up pops another gem from Colleen Dilenschneider’s blog, A Growing Competitor for Attendance: The Couch, that is very relevant to what I was preparing to present.

The argument here and, as per usual, backed up by data is:

The top reason why likely visitors do not attend cultural organisations [in the last two years] is because they prefer an alternative activity. Simply, there are several, other things competing for their precious time, and time is more valuable to people than money. While going to a historic site may be something that interests someone, they may be more interested in having a picnic in the park, going to a sporting event, or meeting friends for a long lunch.

If I received one dollar for every time I was asked what is the main competitor for museums I’d be rich by now! Put simply, as Colleen states above, we are competing for people’s time and attention in what she calls a “super-connected world”, and the couch potato syndrome is a manifestation of this.

Watching the Emmys this week (and yes, my secret addiction is Awards shows!) brought to mind how much the small screen world has changed, even in the past twelve months. New and expanded players in the market (Amazon, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Stan) and the tendency to repeat free-to-air shows in a binge format on the weekend (certainly in Australia) coupled with (free) on-demand services such as ABC iview and SBS On Demand means that television is truly now consumer-led, watched in their own time and space, not beholden to network schedules. UK research found that watching live TV declined by 3% to 67% in the last 12 months, yet at the same time we are watching more:

The total media consumption across TV, radio, social networking, cinema, online and more was totalled at eight hours and 11 minutes per day, growing by 3% year-on-year, with 94% said to be consuming two or more forms of media in the same half an hour at some stage of the week.

Interestingly, this article says that the biggest competitor to television viewing is sleep…

But what does this mean for museum visitation?

Back to Colleen’s article and some relevant (US) statistics:

  • The preference to “stay home” during a week has increased 19.7% for the US composite market, and 20.3% for likely visitors to cultural organizations.
  • The preference to “stay home” over the weekend has increased 24.4% for the US composite market, and 24.5% for likely visitors to cultural organizations. This growth represents a big shift in how Americans prefer to spend their time.

Much of this is put down to not needing to leave the house – we can shop online for almost everything, we have non-stop entertainment at our fingertips, Google to help us find information we need, Twitter for breaking news, and a range of social platforms to connect with our family and friends, as Colleen states: “Though more people are spending time at home, they are still interacting with the world.”

Now to museums and, more specifically, local museums

I’m continually drawn back to an article written by Rob Hall many years ago that still holds up now – The “Museum Constant”: One-third plus or minus a bit, which explored the question What proportion of the local population can museums expect to attract? The abstract and downloadable paper is here.

Rob and I have updated this data via work we undertook recently for Transport Heritage NSW. This again found that “… on average, a little more than one third of the population is disposed to choose a museum for a casual inspection” (even relatively specialised museums such as transport museums – the focus of this particular study) and that visiting a venue involves trade-off between appeal of the venue and associated costs – including not just dollars but a mix of time, energy and money.

Is this news all bad?

Colleen suggests that we need to be cleverer in our marketing spend and advertising to couch potatoes (you’ll have to read the article for more about that), and I would argue also in how we engage with visitors and provide content digitally, given that we know the huge amounts of time people spend online.

I also think we need, to some extent, to downgrade our expectations around visitor numbers and attracting new audiences (and indeed about how many museums we actually have, or need, in the marketplace), and think about specific audiences we’d like to ‘serve’ and telling stories of most interest and relevance to them. Getting to the heart of our communities is something many are currently thinking about in museums (for example, this series of blog posts being written by Mike Murawski, Towards a More Community-Centred Museum), and I think this will be a salient point for next week’s workshop.

More on that to come.

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2 thoughts on “Couch potatoes, television consumption and museum visitation

  1. lyndalllinaker says:

    Very sad but you can’t argue with the data. Interestingly NGV has 70 % local visitors so maybe they are more community focussed. I strongly feel that there is also a chance that when museums try to be more inclusive for some groups that they inadvertently alienate others. You can’t please everybody so you are right – museums need to focus and connect to those people whose interests are best served. They still need data about who that audience is or isn’t as well as observe and get feedback on their actual performance . I think that audiences can grow but perhaps they need to think about extended hours once a month for workers who would visit after work but don’t want to come on weekends because of competing interests.

  2. lyndakelly61 says:

    Thanks for your feedback Lyndall. I’ve been thinking lots on this while doing some work in the regions. Getting this message across the sector is going to be challenging I believe! I’ll keep you posted on this project.

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