TV Today: It’s Still About Lean Forward vs. Sit Back

By  |  Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 8:23 am

Imagine yourself watching TV right now. Where would you be? Would you be sitting back in your favorite chair in your living room and holding your remote control in one hand? Or are you sitting down at your local Starbucks, sipping coffee and watching video on your iPod?

Odds are most of your TV watching still occurs in comfort of your living room with your TV set. But increasingly, consumers are watching video anywhere they can: from work on the PC, on the road from a laptop, on iPods and iPhones, and other portable media players.

Even the term watching TV can be misconstrued, since there are so many options today. Does it mean watching a live broadcast TV channel as it is being aired? Does it mean viewing a show on-demand from your DVR? Does it mean buying the latest Daily Show episode from iTunes and watching it on your iPhone during your morning commute? Or maybe you’d rather go to and watch the full episodes of Heroes for free (with limited commercials, of course).

I’ve recently been thinking about an old phrase from the early days of Internet video: Lean forward vs. sit back. Essentially, it’s the difference between PCs and TVs. PCs are more interactive while TVs are a passive experience. Lots of companies I spoke to back then were interested in the future of television and interactive TV services and wanted to blur the lines between PCs and TVs.

Not much has changed today; I believe that the PC-vs.-TV contrast still holds true. According to ComScore Networks’ Video Metrix service, the duration of an average online video was just three minutes. By comparison, most TV shows are 30 to 60 minutes, and movies are even longer than that.

So why is there such a gap? Lean back vs. sit forward. People are multi-tasking on their PCs, and can only take short breaks. So a three minute online video is the perfect break for someone that’s been crunching numbers on a spreadsheet all morning. Think about the last Internet video clip you watched and try to remember how long it was. Thirty seconds? A minute? Odds are it was a lot shorter than half an hour, even though thirty minutes is considered short on traditional TV.

This morning I tried an xperiment. I went to and tried to watch the latest full episode of Heroes online. I figured that watching a professionally produced TV show, rather than some random user-generated video would make the experience more compelling (not to mention longer).

As I sat down to watch, I quickly realized that my office chair is comfortable, but it’s not great for relaxing, especially for long periods of time. After only a few minutes my attention started to wander. I began thinking about work. Then a phone call interrupted me. An instant message. Facebook. E-mail. Digg. Finally, I cracked and started fully multi-tasking as I watched the show.

After a few minutes, I was concentrating too much on typing and writing, and not paying attention to what was happening on the show. I realized I was paying much more attention to the sound of the show, rather than the video, since I was looking at my work, not the video screen. (No wonder I prefer to listen to music while I work, rather than watch TV.) So I abandoned my experiment after just a few minutes.

When I watch TV in the living room I’m more apt to give it my full attention. There’s nothing in the way to distract me, and thus, I can sit back and watch longer shows. There’s no keyboard, no mouse, no Microsoft Office or browser staring back at me. In fact, on the TV screen I find that I don’t want any interruptions. One of the main reasons why I use TiVo is because I can fast-forward through commercials and compress a half hour long show into about 22 minutes.

So the primary difference between TV and PC is the location. PCs are not usually found in living rooms, but in a separate room like an office. PCs are also usually tucked away into a corner of a room, not like a TV standing tall and proud for all to see in the middle of the living room. Also, the primary purpose of a TV is to do nothing except give us TV programming. PCs are a bit more complex and can do a little bit of everything.

The secondary difference is attention. In the living room, I’m more apt to give my attention to the TV. In my office, I’m more apt to pay attention to work and shorter distractions.

One exception to the lean forward/sit back rule, is mobile video. More and more people are using portable electronics like laptops, mobile phones, or portable media players to watch TV shows. Mobile video changes all the rules because location can be anywhere. So one minute I may want to check my work e-mail, while in five minutes, I might be ready to relax and watch a random YouTube video.

If the lean forward/sit back axiom essentially boils down to location and attention then I believe that consumer habits will eventually change in the future. Change is already happening, albeit slowly. Researching Internet video consumption for this article, I found that the length of an average online video clip has increased from 2.7 minutes in September 2007, to 3 minutes in December 2008. How we interact with TV  will surely change as well, since TV is finally becoming a lot more like the Web–and vice versa.

Jose Alvear ( works as an independent digital media consultant, researcher and analyst. He is currently an IPTV Analyst for Multimedia Research Group, a market intelligence and research company focusing on next-generation TV. He also blogs about digital media at Digital Media Bulletin.


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. Dave Zatz Says:

    Great to see you here, Jose!

  2. Pete Says:

    There is, of course, the middle ground of sitting back on the to watch TV (on the TV), with my laptop either on my lap or on the coffee table in front of me.

    At the same time, though, I think you’re on to something w/consumer habits changing. The music industry is already more familiar than they’d like to be w/the withering away of long-form (album) formats in favor of singles. I’d imagine we’ll see the same thing with TV.

  3. Matthias Says:

    I think that you are expressing a very (stereo) typical experience. But, as laptops gain more and more market share, people are taking their laptops with them. I watch probably about 98% of my TV on my laptop – whether from hulu, itunes, or the big AVI bin in the sky. (of course I only have a 20″ CRT TV, so the laptop is the easy choice). If I had a larger LCD TV I would probably be watching more stuff on that.

  4. Dan Says:

    The growing consensus in ergonomics is that leaning back, opening the body up to a more neutral posture, is better for you. For years, Humanscale, starting with their Freedom chair has promoted that, and now more and more companies are advocating it as well.
    What that means is leaning back, while working, having the torso more open, flexing and relaxing, rather than sitting up straight, or worse, leaning in forward.

  5. Roxanne Says:

    I love to watch TV and I have a great big flat screen TV… and I find myself wishing that I could do everything on my TV that I can do on my computer. I find watching TV on my computer unbearable. And I’ve tried the whole laptop on my lap in front of the TV, but what I really like is something like the YouTube functionality on my Tivo… I want my media from all different sources to be easily available in one place: my huge TV 🙂

  6. mathiastck Says:

    I like watching TV from my couch, with an Ipod touch, T-Mobile G1, Blackberry or Nintendo DS to distract me when the show loses my attention. I’ll typically still follow the dialog. If I bring out my laptop I’ve relegated the TV to background noise, or it’s playing music videos.

  7. Ed Forman Says:

    The ideal middle ground – especially with the increase of advanced, flat-screen TVs — is an experience that enables consumers to view and interact with Web video via remote control on the television. While viewers may be spending more time engaging with video on the PC, the trend is likely to shift in the other direction as ways to view Web video seamlessly on the television achieve market traction.

  8. Jose Alvear Says:


    I agree with you. In fact, I’ll be writing another post on what’s available today, for people who want Internet applications on TV. Primarily, it’s Tivo right now, but I’ll take a closer look at others too.

  9. Tim Todd Says:

    Interesting article. For me it isn’t an either/or exclusive choice between sitting back or leaning forward. TV used to describe both the display device and the content. There are now many display options and I utilize many of them. I don’t even have a TV, rather I have a projector with a pull down screen setup similar to this one:

    The viewing device and the content I watch are based on location and attention as you describe.

    My sources of content are the internet, Netflix, and DVD/Bluray.

    A PS3 is a good bridge between broadband internet and the entertainment center with the option to play Bluray, browse the internet, or watch TV (for me this content is served up via broadband). A laptop is even better. This lets me sit forward from the best seat in the house and enjoy games from the PS3 or stand up and get active with the Wii (another potential bridge). I can watch and manage content from my computer in a different room (while I sit in front of it). Or I can exercise and watch video from my computer while working out on my elliptical in a way that lets me know if my heart rate is where I want it to be.( With the Iphone/laptop I can take entertainment/internet with me on the go.

    I have many different viewing options and I utilize a lot of them. At different times and for different purpose, I sit back, I lean forward, I stand up, and I even exercise all while enjoying what we would traditionally call TV.

  10. Big And Tall Office Chair Says:

    Thank for information.

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