Metrics and the Future of Television

24 01 2013

I kind of think of Phil Hodgetts as the “Maestro of Metadata” – that practice of attaching as much data directly to our media as possible so we can more easily use and find those images, audio files, and video later.

Metadata has been getting a lot of play in the last year or two among those of us who create content. It will assist those of us involved in that task in making our lives easier, so we can concentrate on the creative tasks instead of the bookkeeping part of it.

But I want to speak about another kind of data that we don’t talk about enough – metrics – and how it might make the way in which we connect with our audiences easier.  Along the way it will also show just how tone-deaf old media companies are to the new world.

To my mind, metrics collection is the process of collating as much data as possible about the people who watch and listen to our media as possible as well as how they watch it.  This helps us to create programs that attract more people and, therefore, more advertisers — if that is how we want to pay for those programs. On the web those metrics are called “analytics” because why should New Media use Old Terms, right? Companies like comScore (their comScore Data Mine site usually present some interesting high level statistics), Nielsen (some of their reports are fascinating), and Experian’s Hitwise (their weekly online trends page is hilarious sometime; do you know that the number three search term this week is “pawn stars wedding” — more on that later) have developed sophisticated tools to gather those analytics and to sell them. Google Analytics does that as well.

For those of us who work in more traditional broadcast — like television — Nielsen has long been the top company for the gathering of television viewer data. There is all kinds of urban folklore about people who have those infamous “Nielsen boxes” or fill out “Nielsen diaries” which report viewing data to the company.

On the December 28, 2012 episode of The Social Hour (a TWIT podcast with Sarah Lane and Amber MacArthur) the hosts discussed a recent news story about the partnering of Nielsen and Twitter (as announced in this press release)  to create a measure of how much a particular television show is being mentioned on Twitter.

The advent of Twitter as the world’s new “water cooler” for discussion of television and sports is nothing that hasn’t been discussed before, though that press release from Nielsen talks about it as if they recently discovered it.

Sarah and Amber mention how long it’s taken Nielsen to recognize that this is a valuable tool for television programmers, and that’s true. But Nielsen exists in a complicated ecosystem that they fail to discuss.

Let’s start off by talking about who Nielsen’s customers are and who they aren’t. Even though advertisers are ferociously interested in the data that Nielsen creates (since they base their ad buying decisions on that data) the primary customers for Nielsen are the networks. That’s right — the networks. It is the networks that receive the infamous “overnights” which tell them how a show is doing and which demographic slices are and aren’t viewing.

(We’ll put aside the issue as to how accurately that data actually represents viewers of commercials, but remember that that is an issue as well.)

A few years ago, Nielsen acknowledged that their data was sorta flawed and they introduced a correction. The MediaDailyNews reported that they were simply changing the meaning of the word “reach.” (A year later, there was a controversy over the effectiveness of some of their metrics that was so strong that Nielsen felt the need to counter them in a press release). The howling from the networks around any small change was so huge that you would have thought that Nielsen threatened to kill all of the executive’s children. And, in a sense, they had. To simplify, the new metrics basically adjusted the numbers in a way that showed that viewership wasn’t as high as they had been reporting. Which was what people had “known” for years.

But these new metrics would have made it possible for advertisers to negotiate for lower prices per ad buy and the networks were staring at mega-losses.

As a result, Nielsen didn’t change their system,

This, despite the facts that the cable providers can track our viewing down to the second (here’s a Nielsen study about how viewers watch time-shifted programming, something that directly concerns networks). They can tell who is skipping commercials, how much of a show people are watching, how many televisions are watching which programs, and a host of other data. Dish Networks famous “Hopper” feature gives viewers the ability to easily hop over commercials — a service which Dish would never have developed if there wasn’t viewer demand for it. And the networks are going nuts about it.

The networks aren’t run by stupid people. They know that viewers don’t like most commercials and an increasing number of them are skipping over them when they can. But how do you pay Charlie Sheen’s salary (not to mention writers, producers and — yes — editors) when advertisers see a decreasing value in network ads? (Or, to be precise, when they will eventually see this — for now, network TV is the best game in town for reaching large audiences)

Those network executives have been experimenting slowly — they have been inserting commercials into their online offerings, and making it super hard to skip over them. They have been selling their content without commercials to iTunes, Netflix, Hulu Plus and others. But huge corporations are huge and they steer slowly. When I was at a major music publishing company, years ago, and told them that they should get out of the business of distributing small disks of plastic and out of the A&R business, they couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t make scads of money selling CDs and finding and promoting music writers.

Look at the world now.

Nielsen is not the immovable monolith here — the networks are. They simply cannot recognize what a dying species they are — or, to be precise, what a dying concept their present business model is.

The good news behind Nielsen and Twitter’s partnership, however flawed it may be, is that it will eventually force the networks to give up their present method of measuring audience and how they finance their shows. True audience engagement will be the way they make their money in the future. While I don’t want to live in a world in which the arts shows on Ovation disappear, while “The Voice” gets the lion’s share of network financing — we will move towards that. BBC shows like Downton Abbey will attract a lower audience here than “2 And A Half Men” but shows like Ina Garten’s cooking shows will attract a small but devoted niche. All will be financially fundable if they can be made and promoted for the right price.

In other words, my own 2 Reel Guys webcast will be able to attract a small amount of financing, and assuming that we can continue to attract advertisers at low cost (which is how we make the show now) we’ll still be able to produce it and give it away.

Twitter knows who we are right now — not only our own descriptions of ourselves, but what we post, who are friends are, who we follow and (by inference) what we are interested in. The partnership between Nielsen and Twitter will make the numbers (when combined with all of that other data that Twitter knows about us as individuals) more honest which will, unfortunately, mean that a crap ton of people at the networks will lose their jobs, but that the networks can move to their greatest competence — distributing shows to groups of known people. Nielsen already collects an enormous amount of data about web traffic and web viewers. They will combine that with the Twitter data to finally collect some usable metrics that we, as content creators, can use to create programs that satisfy whatever audience we decide we want to reach.

That, combined with the so-called “democratization of the media” thanks to increasingly low cost content creation technology, actually bodes very well for us — and, perhaps (if they are listening) a leaner but better system of networks. The future will probably not look exactly like Revision 3 or TWIT, but it certainly won’t look like ABC, CBS or NBC either.

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