GenuineVC David Beisel's Perspective on Digital Change

March 3, 2006

Consumers’ interaction with video content is dramatically changing these days, and the corresponding attention that fact is receiving is tremendous. I’ve been surprised, though, that in a number of conversations recently people have cited the (recycled?) distinction between “lean-in” and “lean-back” viewing. Distinguishing along this characteristic came into the vernacular (I think) nearly ten years ago (see this 1/98 CNN article as an example), but perhaps it is becoming more relevant again today. Or is it?

The two terms are representations using the physical state of the consumer as a metaphor for how s/he approaches the content. Lean-back viewing is largely television watching – passive, relaxing, non-interactive sessions. Lean-in viewing is at a PC or desktop device – active, engaged, interactive sessions.

My feeling is that this distinction will eventually become much less clear (and perhaps thus less important). But the real corresponding question is how quickly this change will come to fruition and what the ramifications of it are. An analyst back in 2000 (see report here) called the blurry grey between lean-in and lean-back an “edge-of-the-seat” experience. While he was obviously premature in his prediction, the essence of his thinking is largely correct. Consumption of video content will not strictly be an either/or lean-in or lean-back proposition, but rather somewhere along a gradient in between. It all depends on who, what, where, why, and when it is being consumed.

We are already seeing the beginnings of this transition with people becoming more active in controlling/interacting with their content in a traditionally lean-back environment through Tivo or cable on-demand clips, as well as (SMS) voting and audience participation in reality shows. With the wealth of video entertainment proliferating online recently, it was funny that I found myself earlier this week sitting back in bed and watching a few videos before retiring instead of flipping on the tube. Video on a portable device like an iPod adds another dimension to consider. Include the “third screen” of mobile into the picture (pun intended), and I am not sure which way consumers are “leaning” there – perhaps “hovering-over” instead.

The consequences of this distinction (or lack thereof) for both the content owners / publishers and advertisers is definitely meaningful. At the core, different levels of engagement from a viewer translate into different types of content. And my hunch is that the more active and attentive a viewer, the more valuable s/he is to an advertiser. If/when this distinction blurs, creating the appropriate content and advertising for the viewing situation becomes more challenging to match the consumers’ environment and situation.

The next time you are watching video on any screen, ask yourself if which way you are leaning – and how much it really matters.

  • Erik Schwartz

    David, don’t look at the video content. Look at the function of the video content in the viewer’s life.

    Televison is used as background noise to enormous degree. 66% of American families eat dinner with the TV on. That doesn’t even rise to the level of escapist viewing.

    In the average US household the television is on for about 7 hour a day. The average american watches 4 hours of TV a day. How much of that is engaged viewing?

    Do you see the escapist functions and the background noise funtions being taken over by interactive clips?

    Also… Unless YouTube (et al) can come up with a way to generate revenue, they’re not going to be around long. Losing money on every clip and making it up on volume will chew through sequoia’s money pretty quickly. It’s going to be really hard to sell advertising against most of YouTube’s inventory.

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