I’ve just read in Broadcast an extract of Peter Bennett-Jones’ BAFTA speech – with the headline “Has data become the enemy of originality?”. The article is about how broadcasters are taking less risk because of the increasing use of data in decision making – namely that commercial pressures drive commissioners to chase ratings, and this ultimately leads to a raft of derivative programmes. The result, according to PBJ, is that “original and polemical programming is in the casualty ward”.
This view troubles me… data is a great thing. Look at the world of entertainment outside television… is crunching numbers and understanding audience behaviour making things like social games worse? Apart from the fact if it weren’t for understanding this data social games wouldn’t exist, let alone be a $2billion market, but understanding the numbers (and by extension the audience) means they can constantly innovate, tweak their product, and improve the experience.
The real problem with how data inhibits innovation in TV is actually a cultural problem in TV itself… *some* (or maybe I should say *most*) people who don’t understand how to use data to aid creativity. I actually don’t have a problem with commissioning on the basis of how a similar format did on another channel when moving that format on in a decent way (for example it’s great how Channel 4 borrowed the successful ’fixed camera rig’ from shows like Big Brother and applied it to documentary), that doesn’t mean that I approve of the BBC making ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ as soon as they saw ‘Downtown Abbey’ was a hit. One thing I certainly disapprove of though, much to the disappointment of the old school of TV producers and commissioners, is commissioning based on whims – on things you read about in a newspaper or something your daughter said was a good idea. Occasionally you hit gold, but rarely. I think it’s a unique trait of TV that decisions are so often made with little or no business case, at least data goes some way to helping broadcasters scrutinise ideas.
Where data could really empower commissioners goes beyond just understanding the competition – it even goes beyond understanding the audience - it should be about responding to them, and quickly. The big entertainment companies operating online work on an ‘agile’ basis -they release quickly and refine constantly. Wouldn’t it be great if TV were more like that? Ok – maybe not always practical for a drama, but what about live TV? I personally loved ’10 O’Clock Live’ on Channel 4 – but it didn’t rate that well – and the format didn’t change over the entire run. Sure things can take a while to get an audience and I’d never advocate ripping up the format completely each week – but where was the iteration, the testing, the evolution of the show? It’s not just ’10 O’Clock Live’: ‘Famous and Fearless’, ‘Red Or Black’, the list goes on.
Peter Bennett-Jones may yearn after the good old days when it was all about the idea – that ‘hunch’ on an A4 piece of paper with no supporting evidence. I’m not saying broadcasters shouldn’t take risks, they must to stay ahead, but data can mean the difference between an informed risk and just being downright reckless. If TV is going to survive in the long term we all have to work and think differently. We need to use the powerful and exciting richness of data to improve the products we offer – and ultimately improve the prospects for our businesses.