Big Data And The Future Of Programming - Or Not
There has been quite a bit of chatter lately about Netflix’s "House of Cards" and how Big Data will be what underpins programming hits of the future.
Just to be clear: I don’t believe that data will be what makes the difference between a smash hit and an abject and expensive failure.
Data certainly has a part to play, but the fundamentals of storytelling, human emotion, timing — by which I mean breaking boundaries to get ahead of the pack— and a certain amount of luck are every bit as important.
The bottom line is that I’m not convinced all the variables and intangibles that have to come together to make a successful series can be boiled down to an algorithm. It’s the combination of insights derived from relevant and reliable data/research along with creativity and craft that make content. It is a blend of science and art, rather like alchemy.
Most telling, it’s never wholly predictable, no matter who your stars, writers and producers are, and no matter when you schedule the program or how much you spend marketing it.
As for the use of data – this is not new.
The means of capturing it may be new and the types of data may be different, but programmers and network marketers have been informing their decisions with data of one sort or another for years.
From basic ratings data to custom research to the analysis of interaction and response-based data, much has already been folded into the decision-making process.
For example, around 15 years ago, I was consulting to one of the largest independent program producers in the world. During the project, I learned that the company knew so much about how different program formats performed on different networks in individual countries, they could accurately predict the volume of calls and text messages generated by time slot.
Accordingly, they could predict the share of call revenues that would be divided between themselves, the broadcaster and the carrier and decided whether to give the program for free in exchange for the broadcaster’s share of the call revenues — thereby maximizing returns.
If that’s not a smart use of data, I don’t know what is.
That is an illustration of the use of data to leverage formats that are proven to work – not to pre-determine success.
As an example of a show Big Data algorithms would likely never have brought to our screens: "Walking Dead." No stars, no big name producers and no major network with a massive opening marketing push. While its genesis may have been considered a well-performing show for AMC, it’s now grown intoasuccess any major network would love — big audiences and lots of buzz.
It’s what networks want and it’s what agencies and advertisers want. But it’s not exactly predictable.
Personally, I hope we never see a scenario where Big Data becomes dominant in decision-making in regard to new programs. (And I say that as a professional who uses research and data to understand viewers' relationship with media.) If it does, we’ll likely see fewer innovative and challenging programs. Fewer comedies that go beyond the cosy and forgettable.
I’ve no doubt that Netflix, Amazon and the like will be producing more original programming going forward, and that’s a good thing. But success won’t be determined by data alone. Companies will probably end up drawing more on smart people with programming skills gained in the more established world of programming than they will on some new kind of executive.