Musings on the Evolution of Media Attention Spans

Everybody is aware that we live in a microwave-attention-span world. Or do we? How do you explain an opera like Wagner’s Ring Cycle still playing to sell out crowds? Didn’t opera hit it’s hey-day 150 years ago? Yet an opera which takes four days to perform with a total playing time of 15 hours, give or take a few arias, still packs them in during the Youtube generation. In fact, it sells out years in advance. Talk about a “Long Tale”!

What’s up with this? Are the baby-boomers holding up the long-attention entertainment market?

In the recent history of popular entertainment, one could argue for a cycle of evolution that goes something like this:

1800’s: Opera gives way to Theater/Broadway shows – Early 1900’s: Theater/Broadway Shows give way to Movies – Mid 1900’s: Movies give way to Broadcast Television – 1970’s/80’s: Broadcast Television taken over by Cable – Now: All visual entertainment turns into internet/Youtube.

During this cycle, each of the new-comer technology/entertainment media declares the death of the previous. Each new medium requires less time and more choice. Each new medium requires less money to mount and produce. It might also be argued that the attention span required for each was reduced.


Last year the Metropolitan Opera in New York had revenues of 249,000,000 dollars. A quarter-billion dollars for one theater, showing antiquated entertainment. The next five theaters showing opera, i.e. San Francisco, Seattle, Omaha, Los Angeles, Dallas, show revenues averaging around 50-60 million a piece. The US has 125 opera companies running in full. (for now we’ll leave out profits, subsidies etc.) This is not including Europe, where opera is still very popular.

Broadway, mostly thought of as a New York industry has spread throughout the country. Over 800 cities in the US have professional theater companies, and most new plays are developed in these theaters. Broadway is now more of a place where a finished, tested piece comes to rest. Once on Broadway, a good play can generate anywhere from 600,000 to 1,000,000 per week. Per week!

Interestingly, George Lucas recently declared the “Blockbuster” dead, in much the way one would declare opera dead. Too expensive, too risky, requires attention span too long for the average citizen growing up in the Youtube age. To add insult to this form of entertainment, Vanity Fair recently ran an article by Michael Wolf, The Plot Sickens, in which he declares the screenplay dead. I don’t need to recite the thousands blogs which have declared Hollywood dead.

For readers of this blog, television has been portrayed as a fading medium as well. Seth Godin portrays the death of the television-industrial complex as a fact of the 21st century. But, cable television still gets into 80 million homes, whether anyone watches or not. Although, MTV fired all it’s producers, directors and writers a few years ago, it still is one of the most profitable brands in the history of entertainment.

(For an interesting discussion as to whether or not newspapers are dead, see this.)

What does all this mean?

As youtube and the like expand and dominate the media landscape for the new generation, we look around the media landscape and see all the old forms still being supported by rabid fans. The raging profits are not there, but that shouldn’t be surprising. The pie is being split billions of ways.

Speaking of billions of channels, this brings us back to Opera. One does not need to have a mass audience on youtube or in opera. You just need the fans who’s attention span fits with what you do. Hundreds of thousands of video producers have connected to thousands of raving fans online. Micro-entertainment for micro attention. High choice, high traffic, high clicks, low attention spans, low pay. Opera = Low Choice, Low traffic, high attention spans, and low pay.

It seems attention spans will not kill off old media forms. Hollywood may look like opera in ten years, and television may seem like opera compared to the speed and choice on youtube. But these relative comparisons are only exercises in contrast. By and large, if attention spans are evolving in media, it seems to be going both ways, toward long tales and toward short tales.

I read long books, I write long blog posts, and I’ve been to an opera or two, but I don’t watch TV. I love short form entertainment on youtube and I can’t take watching it more than 3 minutes a clip. For me, it’s either long or short. Don’t mess with mister inbetween. The long stuff is an investment in quality, the short is drive-by chuckles. Channeling your energy this way? I’d love to know…


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