Gus Cuddy | Essays:

Opportunity costs and attention spans

25 November 2018

“Attention spans arent falling. Opportunity costs are just rising. Big, big difference. People love long, in-depth content. But it needs to be really, really good.”

David Perell

Are attention spans shortening, or are opportunity costs rising?

I think it’s the latter. Many people in theatre claim attention spans as a problem for the form, but this strikes me as largely bogus, and an excuse for boring theatre.

The opportunity costs now are staying home and watching truly great art on HBO or Netflix, or watching hilarious or educational videos on Youtube. Yes, Social Media is probably not good for attention spans or our health. But I don’t buy it as an argument against theatre — fact is, great long-form digital content is thriving. People watch whole Netflix seasons in a night, listen to 3 to 4 hour podcasts, and read long, well-written articles.

For the price of the ticket to one show, you can have months and months worth of unlimited free music, movies, and TV shows.

Which means: we need to raise the bar, by creating truly compelling live experiences. It needs to compete. It needs to be wild and electric and alive and great, an experience that proves itself worthy of the investment in time and money:

I don’t buy the short attention span argument; I think people who say that are usually advocating work that is plain boring. I think the challenge is that people have more options. For the price of a ticket to Oresteia they can buy the full box set of The Sopranos, and why shouldn’t they? So we have to really make them an offer, we have to compete. We have to offer a live experience that is more electric and dangerous than one they could have in their living room… As a popular artform theatre is doing less well than it’s done in any century. It’s in danger of becoming refined, like opera, and that’s the death knell. We need to make the argument for it as something that is urgent and important.

Robert Icke

Else, people will continue to choose other, better content. There’s just so many more options. The opportunity cost is too high to attend boring theatre.