Commissioning by numbers: the dull reality of TV
Creativity has always been the cornerstone of broadcast, but there’s no denying data has a massive role to play. Data science in broadcast is nothing new, for years commissioners’ decisions on what makes it to our screens have been defined by audience insights and analysis but the question has been raised over whether a reliance on data is leading to monotony in television - I for one am unsure how many more naked dating shows I can take. We’re said to be in a new ‘golden age’, but with more and more people switching off from linear viewing and a 167% growth since 2004 of households that hold an SVOD subscription, the success of today’s series has undoubtedly been buoyed, arguably even driven, by platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Now TV. It’s no coincidence that these platforms live and breathe data, using audience insights to target their creativity with a deliberate, data-driven focus.
The creativity vs data debate has been ongoing for a while now. As Steven D Wright puts it 'How many times have you heard a commissioner explain that they are looking for a formatted show that appeals to women aged 30-39 called Sharon, with kids, who like shopping in Aldi and only have sex on Thursdays?' It goes without saying that using data in such a literal way crushes innovation and means broadcasters don’t take risks, resulting in a lack of diversity on our tv screens. Geordie Shore, Ex on The Beach, Love Island, The Valleys, Big Brother to an extent - it’s a format that worked once and has been repeated over and over. As a huge Love Island fan, it pains me a little to tar it with the same brush as ‘The Valleys’ but these are all shows that play to our voyeuristic nature in the name of entertainment. It’s not just a problem confined to reality formats either, many shows fall victim to the same issues; Grey’s Anatomy / Heartbreaker, The Crown / Victoria / Downton Abbey, The Great British Break off / The Great British Spelling Bee. The show performs well, the data is analysed, then the format is recycled. Television is at risk of becoming monotonous, if it’s not already.
It's indisputable that some television channels and studios are becoming over-reliant on data. Questions have been raised around the role data should play in the curation of content in broadcast, but data is not the issue and innovation without a defined strategy is not the solution. Data and innovation are not mutually exclusive concepts. Take a look at Netflix for example. They’re arguably leading the entertainment industry in terms of leveraging audience insights in ways that hadn’t been thought of before. One of their earlier successes, House of Cards, was famously the product of Netflix discovering their users were fans of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey. Yet clearly, data wasn’t used at the expense of creativity , as in 2017 Netflix shows made up 3 of the only 10 programmes in the world to receive a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. Their originals catalogue is risk-taking, innovative and often viral, but not created without a clear, data-defined strategy.
It’s time for the industry to find an improved balance and take more risks with commissions. Whilst there’s no arguing with the popularity of existing formats, the industry thrives on exciting innovations - whether that’s through new formats, or new technology. I’m hopeful for a future in which more broadcasters create data-defined strategies that supplement the creation of original and exciting content. Without creativity, broadcast risks becoming monotonous and without data, it risks lacking innovation.