How the move to data-driven programming and social analytics is making it harder for linear broadcasters to gauge success.
There are a growing number of options for evaluating the success of a programme: the audience it achieves when first broadcast, the buzz it generates on social media, the reaction of TV critics in the newspapers, and, eventually, the number of awards it gathers along the way. And that’s just in the country that first broadcasts the programme, quite aside from how it fares in different territories.
As options for viewing content increase, so too does demand for information about their performance. One of the curious things about this is that detailed information about changing patterns of consumption is not necessarily easily available. It’s a problem that the incoming chair of the BBC Trust discovered, to her surprise recently, resulting in these comments about the corporation’s lack of information about BBC audiences.
“When it comes to using data to understand its audiences the BBC is a long way behind the competition. This was one of the less pleasant surprises on assuming my new role,” was the surprising comment by Rona Fairhead, Chair of the BBC Trust.
As options for viewing content increase, so too does demand for information about their performance.
It is interesting to contrast that observation with what David Abraham, Channel 4’s chief executive, had to say about data when he gave the annual MacTaggart Lecture last August.
“A TV channel without a data strategy is like a submarine without sonar and 11m people have now signed up to 4 – including half of 16-24 year olds,” he said. “What’s the point? Well we can personalise, which works for viewers and for advertisers, and means we can pay for even more programmes. Control of data also helps fight off those who would burgle the relationship that our viewers have with our brands and your productions. This is how we will all have to compete in the future.”
It’s hard to believe that the BBC is unaware of this issue, not least because the question of its relationship with younger viewers is at the heart of its decision to make BBC3 an online only proposition. Will BBC3 feel the need to cite a comparable figure to that Channel 4 number of 16-24 year olds? This is a different proposition to the traditional “reach” by which the BBC has measured the effectiveness of its policy of providing something for all licence fee payers.
The question of audience measurement metrics in addition to television ratings becomes significant when it comes to making an assessment of the BBC’s exclusive online content – this year the BBC is expanding its iPlayer-only content, such as Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake long-form documentary and a range of comedy shorts premiered for Valentine’s Day. It would be interesting to see figures published for these initiatives – at the moment the monthly iPlayer “performance pack” only lists the top 20 most requested programmes on the iPlayer. In December 2014, the top of that table was Top Gear’s Patagonia special, with 2.2m total requests. The 20th position had a total of 1.1m for an edition of Question Time with Russell Brand and Nigel Farage. Will the iPlayer originals make the top 20 most requested programmes when February’s performance pack is published? Presumably the BBC Trust will get a more detailed analysis, given its chairman’s concerns – it would be nice to think more information could then be made available to the public.
Of course these questions relate to domestic broadcasters in the UK as they look at what constitutes success. The subject becomes even more interesting when international comparisons are made. The point can be illustrated by Norway’s NRK which has recently experienced some record audience numbers for its wartime drama series Heavy Water War, about the Norwegian sabotage during WW2 to prevent Nazi Germany from developing the atomic bomb. The series ended in February with an audience share of 64%, 1.3m viewers – estimates for the opening episode back in January, including multiplatform viewing, put its audience at 1.8m.
These were record-breaking audiences, and the programme is predicted to be the highest rated show in Norway in 2015. If you work in the UK and came across an audience share of 64% for a drama series, you would probably run the numbers again. To put it into context, the highest rated British drama of 2015 to date, Call the Midwife, had an audience share of 34%, with 10.1m viewers.
The shifting sands that make up the time-shifted, socially connected, data-driven TV landscape in 2015 may allow shows to succeed in ways that weren’t possible before.
It will be interesting to see how Heavy Water War travels – it is scheduled to air on TV2 Denmark over three days in early April. TV2 is currently showing the second season of its North Sea beach hotel period drama, Badehotellet at 8pm on Mondays, where it drew an audience of 1.29m, which compares well with the 1.4m watching the second series of DR1’s Sunday night 8pm drama The Legacy (Arvingerne). The latter’s first series has been airing on the UK’s Sky Arts 1, where it attracted an audience of around 35,000 for its first run and a share of over 3%, which is substantially higher than the slot average.
So much for using audience ratings to compare shows, but judging a show by its social media buzz requires a different approach. Take for instance, two shows which generated the most Twitter comment in early February, according to Kantar’s Twitter TV leaderboard. The Friday night final of Celebrity Big Brother on Channel Five topped the table with 207,000 tweets, whereas the annual BAFTA Awards show on Sunday 8 February on BBC1 had 112,000 tweets about what the movie stars were wearing, saying and doing.
If you judged it on audience numbers, the Awards had 4.9m/24% share compared with Celebrity Big Brother’s 2.5m/11% share. A bigger buzz for Big Brother, but a bigger audience for Big Movie Stars –this programme comparison can be complicated business! Likewise, of the top three programmes measured by Tweets Per Minute (TPM) in a recent week, the highest was the BBC’s Comic Relief British Bake-Off with 951 TPM, followed by the final of Channel 4’s The Jump with 909 TPM – in terms of audiences, the Bake-Off had 6.4million viewers, while The Jump had 2.2million. Interesting to note the similarities in terms of reaction on Twitter compared with ratings audience.
While some may pine for the days when success could be gauged by the reliable metrics of the overnight ratings, it may well be that the shifting sands that make up the time-shifted, socially connected, data-driven TV landscape in 2015 ultimately have a freeing effect, allowing shows to succeed in ways that weren’t possible before.
Philip Reevell writes about broadcasting and media matters.