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Can You Pay Attention for Eight Minutes? NBC Olympic Coverage Says “No”

Watching the Olympics has been a mixture of admiration and frustration. Like many Americans, I was caught by the story of 15-year-old swimmer Katie Ledecky who is the same age of many of my students. At 11:00 PM Friday night, there was engaging hype leading up to her 800 meter freestyle event. The NCB sports commentator noted, "The race will be about eight minutes," before the digital buzz sent the line of swimmers simultaneously into the pool. By the end of the first two minutes, Ledecky was a little ahead of the world record pace, and in the lead. She was competing against the hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington of Britain and the 2008 bronze medalist Lotte Friis of Denmark. Ledecky's arms churned the water, sometimes fully ahead of the animated world record line, sometimes only fingertips stroking its imaginary presence. The NBC commentator chatted away about her strategy; had she pulled in front too soon? Would her more seasoned rivals push her and then pass her? The race was exciting.

Suddenly, NBC cut away from the race to broadcast a series of commercials: a new sitcom, a credit card... who cares what else? The race was continuing in cyberspace while I impatiently waited for its return. Of course, I knew I was watching a rebroadcast. The event had been decided hours ago. I even knew who won, but that did not stop my level of engagement until NBC cut me off.

Six minutes into the race, NBC's economic responsibilities addressed, Ledecky appeared once more on the screen, solidly in the lead. The commentator who had questioned her strategy was now unabashedly cheering her forward as were the crowds watching the race. She demonstrated that brand of immortal teenage exuberance, simply swimming as fast as she could for as long as she could until she literally hit the wall. This youngest member of the U.S. swim team had finished the race for the gold in 8 minutes, 14.63 second and narrowly missed a world record. Then, I heard the commentator ask, "The future of USA swimming! Have we seen it tonight?"

"No, we did not!" I snarled back to his rhetorical question, a response made more ridiculous by my awareness of the digital divide between question and audience. No one watching that broadcast saw the race live. Nor did we see the race entire. Instead we saw a truncated version of an Olympic event. We saw the beginning, and the end, but we missed the middle...the plot where the protagonist fights against an antagonist, the water, an opponent, herself.

I often joke with my fellow teachers that a student's attention span in class is 24 minutes, the length of a sit-com without commercials. Understanding this programmed behavior has helped to guide my teaching. I get 24 minutes of "real understanding" in a 43 minute period; the rest of the time is administrative (attendance, homework, announcements,lesson prep or product collection, etc). But a sitcom is not a continuous 24 minutes, rather, each episode has several breaks at approximately eight minutes intervals throughout a broadcast. The first eight minutes introduces characters and conflict. The second eight minutes features conflict confrontation. The third eight minutes deal with plot resolution. Every eight minutes, a commercial intrusion follows the "cliffhanger moment" or a plot complication to keep viewers intrigued.

However, this broadcast now has me concerned. The race itself was eight minutes, the amount of time that networks have conditioned the public to expect in a story sequence. The race itself could have been shown in its entirety. Instead, NBC pulled away only two minutes into Ledbecky's race. Why?  More than likely, the decision was made to maximize revenues and cram in more commercials for a committed viewing audience. Some executive probably thought that the race would look the same throughout; swimming is not as flashy as gymnastics or basketball. This, however, I see as a dangerous precedent. In chopping up this eight minute race, NBC has catered to the desires of those who only want the outcome.

Many of my students want to read only the beginning of a story and the end "to see how it turns out", without reading the story itself. These students would rather have the answers rather than experience learning. They think the middle is "boring". NBC's coverage of this particular race is similarly condensed. The NBC model suggests that the race, an eight minute sequence of Ledecky's story, can be interrupted, and that the middle of her story is not as important as the concluding last lap.

When we look for reasons as to why students are unable to pay attention for an extended period of time, we might look at the powerful influences of media. How the media tells stories: news, sports, sit-coms, influences the pattern of stories. Audiences will adjust to the shortened version. Ledecky is the same age as many of my students; she is part of the generation that operates on the 24 minute window of learning opportunity. Her race, the plot of her conflict, at the very minimum deserved the eight minutes of uninterrupted broadcast time her generation has been trained to expect before a commercial break. NBC's methods of broadcasting the "future of swimming" is an indication of a how media will fragmented  or remove parts of a story in the future; our students' attention spans will soon reflect the same.

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Comment by Trevor Teter on August 11, 2012 at 11:05am

@Laurie: Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point may be the source of that study you were thinking of...

Comment by Laurie S. Brown on August 10, 2012 at 9:18pm

I don't remember the source, but I do remember reading somewhere that Sesame Street helped to create the shortened attention span.  It was designed in 2 minute snippets.  Think about the other educational programs that have followed and they are designed the same way....Blue's Clues, Dora the explorer, Zoom (for older kids). The generation that grew up after Sesame Street has been trained to observe and think in 2 minute snipptes.  I'm convinced I've seen the effect over the past 25 years of teaching. 

Comment by Denny Dial on August 10, 2012 at 5:42pm

I, too, watched that race and thought pretty much the same thing--and also that in the "instant gratification" world we live in, who (what network) could expect viewers to sit through an 8 minute race?  I can't recall any specific research, but I'm pretty sure I've come across some through the years, re attention span, but all one need do is to watch, and notice, how fast scene changes have become in current-day tv ads.  So, I do not think it is a question of whether attention spans have grown shorter--seems to be a "given"; rather, the question seems to be of "the chicken or the egg" variety.  Did visual media adjust to shorter attention spans or help to create them?  It seems a bit cyclical; kind of like, "Did universities place higher and higher demands on in-coming freshmen, to the point of flabbergasting parents, or did parents 'rachet up' their demands for qualifications requirements to give their own children a better shot at being accepted?"  I recall an anti-drug ad from more than a decade ago where the principal actor/spokesperson states that he/she "does cocaine" so that he/she "can work longer hours, to make more money," so that he she can "buy more cocaine," so that he/she "can work longer hours, . . ." and so on.  In my own class room, the average age of the students being 13-14, I try to self-adhere to a rule--never talk continuously for more than two minutes without transitioning to something else.  I think more parents should try to adhere to that rule when addressing their own children.  So, to address your post, I think that, unfortunately, we must now try to conform to shorter attention spans rather than naively think that students will conform their attention spans to our teaching style(s) although exceptions will always exist.

Comment by Linda Curtis on August 5, 2012 at 11:32pm

This thoughtful reflection brings up the question of attention span.  Has the attention span of our society as a whole really shortened?  Since I've been teaching 20+ years, I often feel that way.  While technology has improved our lives vastly in so many ways, has it too been detrimental?  I often wonder about that.  Has anyone come across research proving this?

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