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The Oscars, PLR, and box-office magic!

Why anyone other than a film historian would continue to punish himself by watching the entire Oscarcast year after year is often cited as one of life’s minor mysteries. Year after year, critics and the public at large wind up agreeing: Too long! Too boring! Too few bright moments!  Yet even in off-years, the size of the audience is massive.

I, for one, have to watch in order to keep tabs on the commercials. Like the Superbowl, the Academy Awards show is an occasion for Madison Avenue’s media creatives to capitalize on the outsized viewing audience by displaying their shiniest new wares. Last night’s sampling lacked the usual luster, but I hung on to the bitter end. And last night I’ll admit to also being drawn by the cliff-hanger about whether history’s highest grossing Best Picture nominee (Avatar) would be able to overcome the dramatic intensity of history’s lowest grossing Best Picture nominee (Hurt Locker), and either way, how the respective Best Director nominees, ex-husband- and ex-wife, would handle the excruciating on-camera announcement moment. As it turned out, both handled HL’s win with yawn-provoking grace.

Like clockwork, the overnight ratings confirm that an outsized viewing audience was again in attendance. It used to be assumed that the simple explanation was the drawing power of the planet’s most glamorous stars, but for about a decade that hasn’t made any sense. These celebrities are available on the tube 24-7-365, plugging their latest project on talk shows morning noon and night. So if not star power, how to explain?

I think the answer is the same as it is for the Super Bowl (indeed, to greater or lesser degree, sportscasts of all kinds). The same answer that draws huge numbers to the reality shows.

It’s the allure of content that’s fresh – but more than just fresh – unpredictably fresh.

Traditional theatrical television series are at a disadvantage in this department to an extent that is all but threatening the very survival of their species. The problem is that no matter how superbly written and produced, we all know that the dramatic hero will survive in the end because like their comedic sitcom star colleagues, they have to return for next week’s episode.

That bottom-line predictability is fundamentally unlike the sports team that may at any moment fail or succeed to win the day, or the reality contestant who might get voted off the island/dance to victory/get fired. Since we never know, we have to watch, don’t we?

PLR’s principal contribution is to tap into that same human response.  A web site that succeeds in answering a search query provides answers or information that was not known to the seeker. It was important for that moment, but once the answer is known, the site will lose its drawing power unless it also holds out the promise that it will in future dependably provide more new and otherwise unpredictable information  Even more powerfully, if the site is prominently changing every week, responding to changing conditions in its area of interest, visitors will be impelled to revisit to see if new trends have surfaced, possibly answering questions that he or she could not have anticipated. In even the most superbly-designed static website, the unpredictability factor is null and void.

In a site where a new headline seems to pop out every time you visit, the unpredictability factor screams, ‘Bookmark me! Don’t forget!” In Hollywood terms, PLR can be sheer box office magic.

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