The year serendipity defeats the algorithm in TV land? Part Two
The case for Serendipity
As discussed in the last post, there is growing evidence for the permeating influence of algorithms within the world of TV and more broadly across various aspects of our culture. In this post I’ll argue for the involvement of human emotions in conjunction with algorithms to inform the future direction of the TV industry.
Whether we give our personal data knowingly or otherwise, algorithms increasingly know where you’ve been, what you like, where you might be going next and even why and when you’re going. They assume a level of knowledge about us based on the digital trail we leave. In a recent article in GOOD , leading Republican strategist Alex Gage discussed the use of this data in the growing political campaigning field of “predictive analytics” or micro-targeting using the “data exhaust” we all leave when online to successfully tailor political messages at the right time to the right people and in the right place.
So if politicians are getting to grips with consumer behavioural data beyond the ballot box, clearly, there is a tempting opportunity for the TV industry to make use of these technologies too. A hot topic right now is content recommendation technologies – using data to determine what content to serve up, what content we might like to see, what content to hide, ordering of ads, etc, etc. These engines are designed to help us navigate and discover content, characters, plots, stories that reinforce our world view based on our previous viewing behaviours. The idea of using this data to provide better viewer understanding both for editorial and commercial purposes is something that Channel 4 in the UK is pioneering through its ‘Viewer Relationship Management’ platform. In the same way the politician is now looking beyond the polls, TV execs are looking beyond Nielsen/ BARB.
There is, however, a growing number of critics such as author Eli Pariser who argue that a hyper-targeted, personalised world, although it may make the world more ‘relevant’, doesn’t actually make the world intrinsically or extrinsically better off. Leading digital culture thinker Clay Shirky sums up Pariser’s book the ‘Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you’ , as explaining how Internet firms increasingly show us less of the wide world; “locating us in the neighborhood of the familiar”. The risk, as Eli Pariser shows, is that “each of us may unwittingly come to inhabit a ghetto of one”. In the book, Pariser goes on to argue;
“Personalization isn’t just shaping what we buy… Thirty-six percent of Americans under thirty get their news through social networking sites. As we become increasingly dependent on the Internet for our view of the world, and as the Internet becomes more and more fine-tuned to show us only what we like, the would-be information superhighway risks becoming a land of cul-de-sacs, with each of its users living in an individualized bubble created by automated filters—of which the user is barely aware – not exposing us to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview”.
Essentially, the data we are leaving tells whoever (or whatever) a story of who we are. But, and I think rather importantly for the world of TV and perhaps more broadly, not on who I want to be. Rather the data and resulting algorithmic predictions and recommendations are based on past behaviours rather than future intentions or will.
Connecting audiences, not devices.
There is a final factor that influences the stories we consume through TV. And that is a yearning for connection. At its most basic, humans are communal creatures. We are influenced mostly by those around us – a heavily researched sociological field popularized through authors such as Mark Earls and David Brooks’ books on the topic. delete ). In the world of TV, content consumption may stop when the show does but our enjoyment is heightened by the inherent subscionscious knowledge that others may be watching too, inviting us to share the experience the next day with colleagues, friends etc. Or, as is increasingly the trend, connecting with people whilst the show is on: Twitter UK General Manager Tony Wang cited stats showing that 80% of under-25s are using a second screen to communicate with friends while watching TV, while 72% of them are using Twitter, Facebook and other mobile apps to comment on the shows they watch.
Fundamentally, we use stories we consume on TV to create and maintain connections in our lives.
Human editors take these last two factors into account – our yearning for connection and identifying our past behaviour may not indicate future behaviour. Algorithms do not. This final filter requires judgement through hunches, emotion and interpretation, not black and white raw binary data. There is a human opinion factor that no algorithm in the world can replicate and arguably nor should we look to create one that could. As a consequence broadcasters have relied on the linear schedule as the litmus test for content demand – the moment in our daily lives when most people are likely to be available to watch TV and (importantly) connect with others, rather than serving up content based on our personal digital ‘data exhausts’. And as a result, I would argue, broadening their audiences’ worldview.
Who’d have thought I’d have been head over heels with The Killing on BBC 4?
Who’d have thought my Nan would have been into Being Human?
Who’d have thought my little sister would have been in creases at The Inbetweeners?
Who’d have thought University Challenge would be appointment to view TV for my 15 year old cousin?
It will be important for broadcasters not to over-manage the incredible choice of content that will become available to viewers – content that won’t just be coming from traditional TV brands too. Broadcasters in my opinion should continue to attempt to broaden our world-view by delighting and surprising us on topics and ideas that we love but often didn’t expect we would – revelling in the serendipity that a mass medium can offer people. This means taking viewers on a journey, outside of our ‘filter bubble’ or beyond content recommendations generated by algorithms. This in my mind is the role for channel brands in an age of content overload. Taking us to a place somewhere we’ve never been before or,better still, even knew existed and connecting us all through these new stories.
Just had this posted on my employer’s blog. Copy and pasted here. Thoughts welcome.
In the next two blog posts, I’m going to try and explore two cultural trends that are informing big strategic shifts in the way TV is produced, distributed, navigated and found.
In one corner, we’ve got the world of algorithms. Where clever bits of code can choose our friends, inform our governments and serve up TV recommendations based on our previous behaviour. In the other, we have the world of serendipity. Where we stumble on things we like inadvertently, where hunches pervade and TV is recommended based on the time of day it is.
Which one will win? How are they informing each other? And what does this all mean for the world of TV?
THE ART OF ALGORITHMS
We live in an increasingly connected world. Greater connectivity has resulted in more choice. Which, on the face of it, is a good thing. Yet many argue, like psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’ that actually, too much choice can be counterproductive to a point at which it can be paralysing.
Historically the role of channel brands has been to serve up content. When there were only three channels to get your TV fix from, the barriers to entry were too great for anyone else to reach audiences of any scale, thus a natural cartel was formed, meaning viewers never really had that much choice. The role of the channel was primarily a distributor.
Along came satellite and digital distribution and the emphasis of the role of channel brands changed as the means of distribution allowed more entrants into the TV market. This meant the role of channel brands changed from being distributors of content to ‘curators’ of content, helping us manage the overwhelming choice of TV programmes that we were now exposed to.
The recent rebrand of ITV and the refocus on the channel’s relationship with audiences as the curator of content reflects this shift. As their Marketing Director Rufus Radcliffe said: “The rebrand is about cementing a relationship in viewers’ minds with the shows they love and the ITV brand”.
WHAT TO WATCH?
But as TV becomes connected and we increasingly litter our homes and lives with screens, the question “what do you want to watch?” becomes even tougher to answer. There is an interesting tension now brewing in the TV industry – to what extent should broadcasters look to replicate the digital success stories of hyper-targeted, algorithmically-led organisations like Google and Amazon to help navigate audiences through the vast array of content they are now served up?
Kevin Slavin, founder of a social TV co-viewing experience called Starling, delivered a fascinatingTED talk where he argued that we’re living in a world designed for and increasingly controlled by algorithms. This is increasingly evident in the world of TV. In August this year at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos spoke of the taste-based algorithms his company is deploying, which are used to inform editorial decision- making in the hope of increasing the hits and reducing the misses of Netflix commissions.
But are ever-pervading algorithms a good thing for the TV industry and the broader culture at large in which stories told through TV play a hugely influential role?
Algorithms are brilliant at creating relevancy in our lives. They do a large portion of the sifting and filtering for us.
As we increasingly acknowledge though, it’s a two way street – we give up control of our personal data in return for the benefits of doing so; removing randomness and increasing relevancy. Ben Hammersley, former Wired Editor and all round digital big-brain, gave a speech earlier in the year to the IAAC. In his speech he discussed his view on “the renegotiation of the social contract because of the internet and the data on it”. He argues, “We understand the value of our data, we have done the sums and we judged ourselves in profit. If advertisers want to know my preferred brand of whisky, or be allowed access to my travel schedule, and these disclosures get me Facebook for free, with all its associated social utility and delights, then fine. Fair play. We sell our data in return for a better world, and we do understand what we’re doing”.
In the next post, I’ll go on to explore the downsides and the benefits of a world less influenced by code and logic. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts – are you looking forward to or already enjoying a personalised TV viewing experience or do you feel like you’re missing out in any way? Are we on an inevitable trajectory of a logically created culture?
A weekly round up of stuff found down the back of the internet…
Just how do some tech companies make money?
Have a look inside where the internet is kept – Google’s data centre
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Netflix sneaks in some second screen functionality
How Social TV is changing in Europe
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A free tool from Google called the Consumer Barometer provides data on how consumers research and buy products
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