When a broadcasting institution like BBC Worldwide creates a position in its Global Channels business specifically devoted to audience for the first time, the industry should take notice. Why, one wonders, has this role been created now? In Christian Brent’s opinion – he’s the one who’s stepped into the role of VP of audiences – it’s strongly linked with the January arrival of BBC Worldwide’s current chairman, Etienne de Villiers.
‘The BBC has always been doing [audience research], but there’s been a renewed vigor in it,’ says Brent. ‘I think a lot of that’s to do with [de Villiers]. He’s a very strong believer in research; he’s quite vocal and confident about it – the power of when you get good, insightful stuff.’ Brent has long known of de Villiers’ enthusiasm for research, since he worked for him during part of de Villiers’ time at The Walt Disney Company, which lasted until 2000.
Now reunited with de Villiers at BBC, part of Brent’s own job as VP of audiences at Worldwide’s Global Channels business is identifying and interpreting the local demands of international audiences. To start the process, Brent uses traditional consumer research performed through focus groups or simple surveys, as well as tried-and-true sources like Nielsen ratings in the US and Barb in the UK.
‘In markets where the TV ratings data is reliable and we have sufficient distribution for us to show up as a larger channel on those data, we can use it for a lot of [viewer] information, but in some of the markets the ratings either don’t exist or they’re not very reliable,’ says Brent. That’s when viewer panels enter the picture. Brent plans to have them in place within three months of a new channel’s launch. ‘It’s a way to try to build up more of a direct dialogue with audiences as opposed to one-way communication.’
The panels can be set up online or via snail mail, depending on the economics of the country. If you go the online route, says Brent, ‘you can send them an email every couple of weeks saying, ‘Hey, did you see such and such show?’ or ‘There’s a new show starting in a week’s time, take a look out for it and we’ll drop you another email in a couple weeks so you can tell us whether you thought it was good, or on at the right time.” He adds that BBC World, the company’s news channel, uses its own massive international viewer panel regularly.
Another tool used to measure audience feedback is appreciation scores. Because of its public service remit, BBC UK uses them to make sure they’re satisfying viewers. This practice can be more revealing than ratings since, as Brent says, ‘Some lower-quality shows on other networks might have quite big audiences, but they’re just people sitting there relaxing on their sofa, not really paying attention, maybe reading a book at the same time. An appreciation score is more ‘How much did you actually like that show?’ and it takes you onto another level.’
Since technology will allow viewers to easily migrate between platforms, individual satisfaction is more important than ever. Before starting with BBC Worldwide in August, Brent worked outside of the TV business for five years, and remarks on the new playing field of competitive technologies: ‘Now television is competing with the Internet and video content, downloading and streaming… I think the crucial thing to remember is there are lots of different markets with different stages of development. I think people can get caught up in the excitement of all these funky new technologies, and temporarily forget there’s still a huge amount of the world where there’s still strong growth in basic analog cable even.
‘It’s a case of doing your research right in the beginning to understand what’s appropriate… A lot of clever things can be done with technology, but it’s very easy in technology-led businesses to accelerate beyond what customers want just because you can build it. I think you need to be mindful of consumer demand: what do people actually want? What do they need? What’s going to enhance their life?’