Scroll Stoppers: Part 3 - Everything All At Once

How audiences are using background media as coping mechanism

Welcome back. This week we’re sharing Part 3 of Scroll Stoppers: six ways hybrid work is changing our attention. Thanks for all your lovely comments about Part 2 - Mullet Media and hello to all our new subscribers. If you didn’t get the memo, you can find out why we’re releasing this report week by week here.

When I first started watching The Wire back in the noughties, I’d watch with the subtitles on. I wasn’t alone. Many people did this because they struggled to hear or understand some of the language being used.

That wasn’t the case with me. The problem I had was that the plots were so thick, I needed an extra layer of media to help me digest everything that was happening. To fully appreciate The Wire I needed to give it 110% attention.

Fast forward a decade or so and dramas like Emily in Paris are being designed for a world of partial attention. Streamers like Netflix are commissioning for audiences who are also watching their phones.

This week we’re looking at how and why people are splitting their attention across many forms of media and how background media has increased as a result of working from home. It should take no more than seven minutes to read. If you want to go deep there’s a fantastic reading list, plus some quotes and a quick takeaway at the end. If you just want the highlights there’s a handy downloadable summary here.

Multitasking during downtime is nothing new. Flash back to family evenings around the fireplace, everyone engaging in their own hobby—drawing, reading, sewing—while the wireless plays in the background.

According to Inside Intelligence, these days we’re interacting with around 13 hours of content a day. And given that we’re also expected to work, eat, sweat, socialise, moisturise, go to therapy, and God knows what else—it seems our only option is to engage with multiple media at once. 

We listen to podcasts as we scroll through social media, make online purchases during TV ad breaks, and seek out ambient playlists to help us focus while we work. (Am I listening to Spotify’s Period Drama Soundtracks while I write this? You’ll never know.)

But as opposed to a constant need for stimulation, our research suggests this behaviour is a coping strategy. Thanks to a significant increase in remote and hybrid working, we’re getting increasingly good at finding what works for us in a variety of settings. And quite often that means creating the perfect amount of background noise or visual stimulation to recreate a traditional office environment. 

One interviewee explains: “podcasts were really important when I was working from home, because I was alone most of the time and it felt like company.” Perhaps this is also why we see audiences returning to the same comfort programs—Friends, The Office, Parks and Recreation—which provide a sense of safety and nostalgia akin to social connection. 

Alongside new multimedia-tasking habits, our research also highlights changes in the ways we interact with our favourite mediums. “I live in an open plan kitchen and living space,” one interviewee explains, “and subtitles allow people to comfortably be focused on the television while there are other things going on.” The use of subtitles and CC captions while watching TV and films came up a lot in our conversations, and it seems their role is two-fold. Either the programs are muted and purely functioning as a backdrop, or our distraction-prone brains are now reliant on subtitles and captions to ensure we stay fully immersed in whatever’s on screen.

Reading List

If you’d like to go a little deeper, here are a few Everything All At Once things you might want to read.

On background TV as a coping mechanism: “I can’t tell you how many friends have informed me that they’ve been keeping the TV on in the background for… well, for company, as it were. A sort of artificial stand-in for all the hustle bustle of the office that they’ve been missing.” Psychology of concentration: why the world is now addicted to “background TV” (7 min. read)

On ambient TV and the trance of almost unnoticeable aesthetic experiences: “As with soaps and chores, the current flow of ambient television provides a numbing backdrop to the rest of our digital consumption: feeds of fragmented text, imagery, and video algorithmically sorted to be as provocative as possible. Ambience offers the increasingly rare possibility of disengagement while still staring at a screen.”  “Emily in Paris” and the Rise of Ambient TV | The New Yorker (13 min. read)

On how multimedia-tasking habits drive attention recession: “Consumers got so accustomed to the higher levels of consumption that rather than giving it back when prompted, their response was to accommodate this additional engagement through increased multitasking and therefore diluted focus / attention.” Welcome to the era of attention inflation (5 min. read)

And how new types of metrics are necessary to paint a more accurate picture of audience engagement: “Parrot Analytics, which tracks audience demand through a variety of factors including social media engagement, gauges The Rings of Power is driving 30.6 times the average engagement. That’s strong enough to put it in the top 2.7 percent of programs on TV, but it’s still trailing House of the Dragon — which is driving 54 times the market average and ranks in the top 0.2 percent of TV shows.” Is 'The Rings of Power' a Huge Hit? A Muted Flop? It's Complicated (10 min. read)

A brief history of measuring attention: “At the most elemental level, stories are about the feedback loop between storytellers and audiences. Storytellers need to be able to imagine, or ideally to viscerally feel, a connection with the audience. Without a connection between a storyteller and an audience, there is no story.” How to Measure Ghosts: Arthur C. Nielsen and the Invention of Big Data (10 min. read)

On how to get audiences’ attention, from Spotify: “Our own research shows that when audio ads and video ads work together, they drive significant brand impact. In fact, we’ve found that multiformat campaigns on Spotify result in a 90% increase in ad recall and 2.2X in brand awareness” Why Spotify ads are more likely to hold people’s attention (6 min. read)

Key research on engagement with video and audio content: “Although participants self-reported greater involvement for watching video relative to listening to auditory scenes, stronger physiological responses were recorded for auditory stories.” Engagement in video and audio narratives: contrasting self-report and physiological measures (5 min. read)

On the future of the living room and how, when it comes to reaching audiences in their homes, the secret is connection: “Luckily the future of the living room is not about attention: it’s about connection. Successful brands will build upon the emerging affordances of spatial technology, immersive content and smart ecosystems to design experiences that create meaningful connections with audiences.” Future of the Living Room | New Play Space report | PRELOADED (report)

And some soothing, comforting and connection-inducing content ideas:

What they said

A lot of the people we spoke to talked about the use of ambient media to either help them feel connected or to drown out the silence. This results in them cramming a lot more media into their day. According to MIDiA’s latest attention economy report, background and social consumption together made up more than half of all entertainment hours in Q1 2022.

To me, when I work from home I will consume much more media than when I am in the office, because I will always have something going on in the background. For example I put music videos from YouTube on the TV quite often.

People told us about different strategies for replacing the ambiance of the office:

I play Friends in the background, since I feel that I know the show and I can just get on with work, read, and do stuff.

I usually live alone and work from home alone so I want some sort of background noise going on. And when I have a podcast, a lot of the time I am not even concentrating on what is going on. 

There is this one artist that has this one album and just 5 singles. I just use this to focus – I don’t even particularly like the music, but it keeps me focused and sets the mood. I think I just ruined it with the connection to focusing on study or work. 

For others, partial ambient distractions actually helped get into “work mode”:

I’ve actually made a working playlist on Spotify. And it tends to be instrumental. If it’s podcasts, I find they’re quite calming because I can dip in and out of them, but with music I struggle to get into work mode. I’ve got a playlist dedicated to work mode. 

When my eyes have taken in about as much as they can I stop taking media in. I just switch. As does this interviewee:

There is this question of senses. Working from home wreaks havoc with the eyes, so I moved to listening to content more, shifting senses from visual to listening.

As of 2022, podcast listeners as a group have grown 29.5% in the last three years, according to Podcast Statistics and Data [December 2022], from Buzzsprout.


Your content is battling for the attention of audiences who are constantly switching between different sources of media. Think about how your content works for partial or ambient attention.

  • To optimise attention, audiences scan newsletters and articles. Think about how you format your content to work for scannable reading.

  • Audiences are listening to more audio. Is there a place for audio in your content strategy? Think about what people might be doing when they are listening.

  • Tell your audiences up front that the content might be something they want to bookmark for later when they can give it more attention.

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That’s it for another week of Scroll Stoppers: six ways hybrid work is changing our attention. If you liked it, please share it with colleagues, friends, or anyone you think will find it useful. Leave your comments below. Subscribe to our other newsletters and .

We’re back next week with part 4 which is titled Say No Faux.