Edinburgh ’17: Digging deep into data-driven commissioning

It’s not the amount of data you have — it’s how you use it. The annual Edinburgh International Television Festival kicked off Wednesday morning (Aug. 23) with a morning session in ...
August 23, 2017

It’s not the amount of data you have — it’s how you use it.

The annual Edinburgh International Television Festival kicked off Wednesday morning (Aug. 23) with a morning session in which a panel comprised of broadcasters and researchers discussed the merits of using data and algorithms to inform their commissioning decisions.

Moderated by Christian Howes, marketer and research analyst, discussion ranged between lessons learned, the dangers of relying on big data, and how the influx of information available will have an impact on programming in the future.

Mark Sammon, an executive producer for Shine who has also held a number of commissioning roles with UK broadcasters, said his career has centered around using data as a way to respond to audiences. “We live or die on whether you produce the right show for an audience,” he said. And while Sammon says he feels like he has a good handle on consuming and using data, there sometimes needs to be a better mix when it comes to the viewers tapped for insight.

“You intrinsically put your own bias on things,” he said, adding there needs to be a mix of ages and cultures in order for data to work effectively.

That’s where social media comes in.

Sammon said that when Twitter first took off, prodcos could gauge the success of a show based on watching feeds.

“Most of them were hating it, but we didn’t care,” he says. “As soon as people were reactive on Twitter, we knew we were getting an audience.”

Emma Gormley, daytime MD for ITV, concurred, noting that it’s critical that broadcasters get in touch with viewers. “In my world, it’s critical [that] we’re in touch outside the media bubble and know how [audiences] are feeling,” she says, adding that they then direct and change content accordingly.

Sammon pointed to the success of Love Island as an example. The British dating reality series sees a group of contestants living in isolation from the outside world, under video surveillance. Sammon said that for weeks, industry commissioners maintained that viewers weren’t interested in series featuring over-constructed reality or elimination challenges. “Then suddenly, Love Island comes along,” he said, with 2.4-million people watching the show.

In that vein, while data can prove useful, gut instinct sometimes reigns supreme when it comes to commissioning successfully.

David Wilding, director of planning, Twitter UK, said he could theoretically see a future of “artificial commissioners”, where computer programs decide what shows to produce as opposed to people. “That seems to be the promise of Netflix and Amazon Prime,” he said. However, for broadcasters to rely exclusively on data for their commissioning effort would reflect and result in a lack of creativity in the industry.

Wilding and Howes noted a flaw in that approach when used by SVOD behemoths such as Netflix, because it focuses its recommendations so highly on what a viewer has watched before, rather than looking at the broader context of what audiences are doing while watching a show or what they’re doing while not watching the small screen.

Gormley said that much of her programming relies on instinct, particularly when it comes to breaking news. And while data and research may indicate that a specific kind or programming may be a safe bet with viewers, sometimes you have to be “bold and ballsy” to win big.

Pulling out another example, Sammon recalled working with ITV during the commission of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!

While Sammon said several reports indicated that viewers simply wouldn’t be interested in a series featuring celebrities abandoned in a jungle, Claudia Rosencrantz — controller of entertainment at the time — was adamant that the series would persevere, acting as a unique way to expose celebrities and providing a new level of access. The series ultimately proved successful.

Sammon said it was an indication that while you can ask questions during research, people will often give answers they think you want to hear.

Ultimately, said the panel, the name of the game is insight. While broadcasters and prodcos may have access to more data than ever before, being able to translate that into long-term planning and forward-thinking programming initiatives as opposed to reactive decision-making is the Holy Grail of data-driven commissioning.

Kelli Johnson, partner and VP with The Sound Research, says that some of her company’s biggest clients have the most data, but still don’t understand their audience. The key is digging deeper into data to discover the “why” behind what people are watching.

If the story is compelling and the content is good, said Wilding, viewers will seek to watch it on the biggest screen possible.


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