What’s more valuable, time or money?

time is moneyA few years ago, J. Walter Thompson CEO Bob Jeffrey announced that “time is the new currency,” and that’s proving to be among the most prescient and profound statements of the early 21st Century. I’ll be 65 this year, so the relativity of my time is noticeably accelerating, but Jeffrey wasn’t talking about that. He means that we’re all awakening to the old reality that time IS money, and that a good way to view life is through the importance you place on your time. More importantly, he’s making reference to the reality that people can actually do something about their time these days.

This is a major reason why the television business model faces an uncertain future. We take for granted that people will tolerate giving us their time for our commercials, and in today’s marketplace, that’s a pretty dangerous assumption. I recall the first person I ever met who had a TiVo, a young man who worked in an electronics store. I asked if he skipped commercials and why. His response stunned me, because I was expecting something else. “I work 60 hours a week,” he said. “I don’t have time for commercials.” So I did some research and found a Roper study revealing that so-called leisure time for Americans had shrunk from 26 hours a week in 1973 to 19 hours a week in 2007. I also took a look at one of the longest running crime dramas on television, Law and Order, and discovered that the length of the program had shrunk from 47 minutes in 1990 to 43 minutes in 2007. So against a backdrop of fewer hours to watch TV, commercial time per hour had increased by four minutes. Today, one-third of prime-time programming is commercials. The young man was right. Who has time for that?

I was reminded of this recently by my friend Holly, who cut her cable cord a few years ago. Her best friend is Hulu, the website that provides streaming video of TV shows and movies from NBC, Fox, ABC, and other networks and studios. She was so happy with Hulu that she signed up for Hulu Plus, “More wherever. More whenever. Than ever.” Hulu Plus is advertised as THE way to cut cable’s cord, because it provides streaming cable programming for just $7.99 a month. Hulu fans, like Holly, are disappointed to find, however, that the streams come with a full commercial load, just like cable. As Holly told me in an email after she discontinued the service, “They can have my time or my money, not both.”

Hulu knows this is a problem, too. In discontinuing the Hulu Plus service, users are surveyed as to why, and one of the choices is “I don’t want to watch advertising.” Who knew? As Doc Searls wrote many years ago, “There is no demand for unwanted messages.”

This “money or time” sentiment is one deeply held by many, but the idea of them being joined is at the core of the assumptions that hold the TV model together. The business of broadcasting is based on toleration, what viewers will tolerate to get to “their” programs. Determining that tolerance level is a whole cottage industry, but one that always pushes in favor of more and more. That’s on a collision course with consumers, who are increasingly able to manage their entertainment time, and in so doing, reply “one or the other, but not both.” We should not assume a captive audience anymore.

Time IS the new currency, and those who respect it will be rewarded. In terms of new value creation for media, we should already be looking at ways to save people time by aggregating and curating the real time fire hose that is the Web. And it’s looking more like we should be aggregating and curating more than just news content; we should be looking at the real time commercial announcements coming from the people formerly known as the advertisers, too.

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