Understanding ‘Deathwatch’

A deathwatch is nothing new. We had the real deal in 1975 when the world’s media literally waited for Spanish strongman Francisco Franco to die. Because of his slow decline and media interest, people would try to guess the day and the hour. Deathwatch became a parlour sport.

Comedian Chevy Chase inaugurated the long running Weekend Update on ‘Saturday Night Live’ with his hilarious post-funeral news item: “Francisco Franco is still dead”. He milked it for months.

But the deathwatch genre has evolved with the internet, smartphone technology and social media. Everyone can participate. It is highly entertaining and it no longer concerns real deaths of real people. Usually it is about companies, programs and individuals and their reputations, brand, and viability.

But deathwatch follows a standard course and is different than other genres. Let’s have some fun defining that course with the Blackberry deathwatch and then try to think about what deathwatch means for people and programs as well as companies.

The precursors to deathwatch

There are usually five precursor phases to deathwatch:

1.      Massive expectation and achievement:

The Blackberry smartphone easily fits this bill. At one time, the Blackberry was the only player on the block; it ruled the roost – the quintessential expression of Canadian achievement

2.     The grand ‘over-reach’

In 2007, Blackberry stock valuations were so high you would think that the stock was going to go to the moon. It was chic to talk it up. Cool people had one or two.  The man who was going to be President of the United States could not go anywhere without his Blackberry. The grand over-reach was in game-on mode.

3.     The period of silence

The period of silence can have almost any duration but it always comes at the end of the fawning accolades characteristic of the grand over-reach. There is just nothing more soaring to be said.

4.     The mild critique

Someone somewhere says something slightly negative about the person, product or program. In Blackberry’s case, someone said that the iPhone might be a competitor. Most critics saw the iPhone as a child’s toy and while the Blackberry was serious business. Few saw any problem at all.

5.     The appearance of irrefutable negative metrics

Right before the deathwatch begins, commentators start to use irrefutable negative metrics to blow the froth off the product. My two favourites are loss of coolness and mojo loss. Several articles weighed in on the Blackberry asking the question: Has Blackberry lost its cool? Has Blackberry lost its mojo?

I checked several articles on the formation of evidence-based business and market metrics. Coolness and mojos don’t appear to have measurable metrics. So it’s easy to write about and you get away with it.

Just as in philosophy, making a claim of ‘loss of mojo’ is like the irrefutability of a first person psychological report. I can say I feel a pain and people can say that they don’t think I am in pain, but that can’t refute the fact that I feel it. And damn, if I think something has lost its mojo, who’s to say that I don’t think that?


The deathwatch genre is often compared to the decline genre but it is different from decline in one very important respect. In his thought-provoking review in the New Yorker on the Decline genre, Adam Gopnik notes a peculiar characteristic of the genre:

 “The simpler, saner idea that things were good and now they’re bad, and that they could get either better or worse, depending on what happens next, gets dismissed as intellectually disreputable. His (the declinist’s) imprint is left in the idea that a big wheel must be turning in the night sky of history, and only the author of the book has managed to notice it”.

“The first job a declinist book has to do is to explain why the previous books were wrong.”

Exactly right. Why write a book or article about the decline of a civilization or anything else if what you are going to say is exactly the same as what was said in the last book on decline. You have to refute it. You have to say that the other guys got it wrong – that it’s different, faster, or slower than the other guy said.

So how is deathwatch different?

Deathwatch is different because you don’t have to explain why anyone else is wrong – almost all you have to do is ‘pile on’. But just as in the decline genre, you can’t just say what the last guy or gal said. You have to pile on harder or there is no sense saying it at all.

So decline is housed in an academic culture of explanation and refutation. Deathwatch is all about paving the way for the next person to say ‘whatever is deader’ than the last person noted.

Many will remember the Monty Python dead parrot sketch in which John Cleese tried to return a dead parrot to a pet shop to get his money back. The shopkeeper tries to convince Cleese that the parrot is still alive and is then treated to a furious but hilarious blast of invective that delineates just how dead the parrot really is.

Deathwatch in many ways follows the same course. Here are the stages:

1.      The ‘It could fail’ stage

This stage uses the conditional and is polite. It merely mentions the possibility of failure and ultimately death. This is also the ‘say it ain’t so’ phase. For the Blackberry, it was the first salvo over the bow and the idea that Blackberry was not just in some kind of trouble, it could possibly be in a terminal spiral.

2.     The ‘it WILL fail’ stage

There is almost no point to commissioning another article to speculate on whether something is going to fail or die. The only room to move is to pile on. There is nothing to disprove, nothing to refute. Just let ‘er rip! Why not?

3.     The denial phase: ‘it’s  failed now’

The certain failure and death of something presents deathwatchers with a dilemma. There is no point repeating that something is going to die with certainty. They have to ‘up their game’ to the third phase that whatever it is, it has already died. Now we have something that we did not know. For the Blackberry, this phase was marked by broadcaster Kevin O’Leary’s remark to the effect that maybe now was the time to ‘take the Blackberry out behind the barn and shoot it’.

4.     The ‘dead parrot already died long ago and we just didn’t know it’ phase.

The idea that something that looks like it is living is already dead is one of the more comical phases of deathwatch and is epitomized by the dead parrot routine.  As Cleese intoned:

“’E’s not pinin’! ’E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!”

What else is there to say?

 5.     The ‘it has failed and may not recover, will not recover, and won’t ever recover’ stages

Actually, these are three stages but I have decided to shorten things and put them all into one stage. The Blackberry deathwatch went through these stages quickly as deathwatch has this characteristic of speeding up near the end of its course. This stage ends the dead parrot sketch.

After the Deathwatch

After the latter part of stage five, it becomes apparent that there is nothing else to say. There is nothing anyone can meaningfully say within the confines of a deathwatch after one has said that something is already dead and won’t ever recover.

A period of silence follows. In the case of Blackberry, the stock hit a low of about six bucks which was a decline of about 96% from its all-time high.

Deathwatch had triumphed.

But just like most targets of a deathwatch and just like diseases that almost kill all their hosts, something relents. Blackberry started to revive and the deathwatch genre had nothing to say as it had already made its final pronouncement, the last rites had been given, the funeral conducted and the interment over and done. Deathwatch has nothing to say when the evidence of revival presents itself. Nothing!

The Lessons of Deathwatch

Companies and programs do die and people irrevocably lose their reputations. But the lesson of the deathwatch once it picks its victims (whether Lindsay Lohan or Patrick Brazeau, whether Blackberry or Apple, or whether ORNGE or ‘welfare as we know it’), deathwatch must, by its very nature exaggerate the case. It loves the same certainty and steadfastness of purpose that appeals to all of us.

As Gopnik says of the Decline genre:

“…the idea of our decline is emotionally magnetic, because life is a long slide down, and the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up.”

But unlike the decline genre which may or may not relent, deathwatch creates a bubble of doom that only relents at the end of stage five. And deathwatch always reaches the certainty of stage five.

So please be cognizant of stage five and watch for it closely especially in the case of anyone or anything that is not truly dead (like the infamous parrot).

Buy the stock and get ready for some sort of redemption. Most things that are not really dead survive in one form or another.

Social assistance reform is just as possible as a new career or recovery for Brazeau and Lohan. Blackberry and Apple will survive in one form or another and we will eventually get good helicopters for the sick. I guarantee it.