Love of the Unknown - Revealing Live Television's Appeal

Why would audiences strongly prefer live television even when tape-delayed broadcasts provide the same sensory experience and when viewers of the live and the taped broadcasts face the same uncertainty about the event that is shown? To explain these preferences for live broadcasts, INSEAD's Vosgerau, Wertenbroch and Carmon introduce the concept of indeterminacy. Indeterminate consumption experiences (such as watching sports competitions live on television) unfold in ways that are not decided before the event occurs.

by Ziv Carmon, Klaus Wertenbroch, Joachim Vosgerau
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

When the exam schedule at INSEAD was announced a few years ago, furious students stormed into the dean's office, demanding that an exam be rescheduled. The exam had unintentionally been scheduled to overlap with a semi-final game of the soccer world cup. Because rescheduling the exam might set a dangerous precedent the dean announced a seemingly perfect solution: the exam would proceed as scheduled, the game would be recorded and then shown in the exam auditorium as soon as the exam, and coincidentally also the game, ended.

Anticipating possible objections to his plan, the dean explained that examinees would not be able to obtain any information about the game before or while watching the recorded game (the exam auditorium plus adjacent lavatory and vending machine areas would be closed off, cell phones would not be allowed etc). Hence, he explained, except for the time delay, students would have the same sensory experience and uncertainty as if the exam were rescheduled. However, far from settling the issue, student protests even intensified.

Why would audiences prefer live television so strongly, even when tape-delayed broadcasts provide the same sensory experience and when viewers of the live and the taped broadcasts face the same uncertainty about the event that is shown?

To explain these preferences for live broadcasts, the authors introduce the concept of indeterminacy. Indeterminate consumption experiences (such as watching sports competitions live on television) unfold in ways that are not decided before the event occurs. This, in and of itself, makes them more exciting and preferable to equivalent determinate experiences (such as watching recorded broadcasts of the same competitions) that can only unfold the way the featured events were decided before they are broadcast.

In this paper, INSEAD PhD student Joachim Vosgerau; Associate Professor of Marketing, Klaus Wertenbroch and; Associate Professor of Marketing Ziv Carmon, paper provide experimental evidence that indeterminate consumption experiences are more exciting and hence preferable to determinate ones.

The authors also show that indeterminacy operates independently of other factors that could lead people to prefer live broadcasts (such as impatience & illusion of control). Interestingly, indeterminacy has these effects even though comparable indeterminate and determinate experiences need not differ at a sensory level or in terms of uncertainty. All that is different is the viewer's (meta-) knowledge about whether the experience is indeterminate.

This seemingly subtle characteristic can help explain how people interpret many of their consumption experiences. Thus, it can explain when and why consumers may feel the way the students did, preferring live to recorded broadcasts even this comes at a cost.

Our MBA students picked a fight with the MBA dean. In other cases, consumers sacrifice convenience (for example, European basketball fans stay up well past midnight to watch NBA games live, even though games are often replayed the following day) or money (e.g., pay-per-view events, even when replays can be watched for free just hours later).

More generally, indeterminacy knowledge can alter people's experiences in a variety of everyday consumption domains such as television, performing arts, vacations, and gaming in ways that researchers in marketing and psychology have yet to explore. For example, our research suggests to marketing practitioners what types of events may benefit from live broadcasting-programs such as talk and game shows (e.g., Jeopardy) and reality TV (e.g., Survivor) are more likely to appeal to audiences when they are perceived as indeterminate.

Journal of Consumer Research, March 2006

Ziv Carmon, Klaus Wertenbroch, Joachim Vosgerau recommends

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