Monday, 27 October 2014

Three ideas for solving ratings problems

About a year ago, a long time client in factual television came to me with a problem we in the television business know all too well. A successful program was losing audience share, and he wasn't sure 1) why, 2) how to turn things around, and 3) how he should respond to the situation.

I turned to three other clients, all of them experienced executives in factual television (and none of them the same market as the original client.) I asked them how they would approach the situation.

The answers were all very different from each other. What I found very interesting is how different their approaches were to tackling the same problem.

The first idea is from the executive producer of a successful prime time factual program covering celebrity and entertainment news.

Approach #1: focus on the team, not the ratings

"If the team is working well, that’s something very good. Reward them when they do a particularly good job. Ratings come and go but good teams are hard to find."

The second approach is from the long-time head of news talent development and journalism education for one of Europe's biggest private television stations:

Approach #2: evaluate the work process using an outside coach

"An outside view can tell you things about how people are working that you didn’t know, for example, if people are doing "double work."

Choose someone specialized in "optimizing organizations." This person does not necessarily have to be in the media business. They can also be working with other industries; what's important is they are experienced in identifying problems and can suggest solutions

To identify the source of the problem, apply core values and methods consistent with the corporate culture and traditions:

How we communicate effectively
How we manage teams
How we motivate
How we handle problems in the team

The process is ongoing. Step one is the initial observation, evaluation and recommendations for action or change. The second step comes a reasonable time later (3-6 months) when another observation is done, to see if the recommendations have been taken and what the effect (positive and negative) has been." 

The final idea is from a senior vice president of factual programming from one of Europe's top private broadcasters. 

Approach #3: establish a "development mentality" 

The first thing, always, is to try to understand why the ratings are down. Did it have to do with the team? Or with the lead-in? Or with the competition?  

But even the best ideas stop working. I strongly feel that factual programs need to be renewed, and often.

 Step 1 – compare the new ideas each season. Look at 2012, 2013 and 2014: are the ideas the same? This could have a direct bearing on the ratings.

Step 2 – analyze the ratings patterns - look at the ratings per quarter hour, 2012, 2013, 2014. If the ratings drop at the beginning, but pick up at the end, its one kind of problem. If they go down at the end it's another kind of problem.

Step 3 – establishing the "development mentality." The program has to be "re-born" often, maybe as much as every week, probably every month, certainly every season. It doesn’t happen by itself; you have to make it happen.

The executive producer is responsible to make sure there are new things for the viewers, all the time. The EP has to be the kind of person to ask specifically for new ideas, to demand them (the ideas themselves do not have to come from the EP.) He or she has to insist all the time

The first question is, are there people on the team who have the development mentality? These are people who see that the opportunity to develop new ideas for television is an advantage, not a problem or a burden. They are people who welcome the idea to try new things (and are not afraid of failure; failure is often associated with new ideas.)

If there is no one on the team with this mentality, you have to go outside the team. The drawback is when you go outside the team you start with nothing – someone who knows nothing about the program. Also, the team will not react well to outside input generally.

The best solution is always to have these "development" people internal to the team, with (perhaps) some outside input.

Designate a person to lead the development initiative, but not the EP. This should be someone who is eager to develop new ideas for the program, an inside person, someone internal to the program, someone who is a kind of leader, a deputy of the EP.

Their responsibility will be 60% their usual job, and 40% development of new ideas. Once a month, this person convenes a meeting with a specific result intended – a lot of new ideas. The development leader will bring ideas (from the internet, outside sources, etc) that have caught their eye, and the people at the meeting will bring their own ideas.

These ideas will be small and weird, usually. At the meeting, led by the development executive, the group will decide which ideas to pursue. At the conclusion of the monthly meeting, the EP will then demand the list of new ideas from the development executive.

One key element: no executives (definitely not the EP) or senior program people are allowed in the development meeting – because these are people who think they know what works, in other words, "we never do it that way." This will stifle the process.

It is completely the responsibility of the development executive to manage this, and to bring the new ideas to the EP. Then the EP has to take at least some of the ideas and make them happen in the program.

For sure the people at the development meeting will want to see their ideas tried, and they will have to be tried or the process will not work. Many of the ideas will fail but some will work. The successes will lead to renewal of the program.

The key is that the EP and the senior management have to give the ideas the time to work. They have to give new ideas the chance to work and they have to recognize that failure is also part of the process.

One final thing about this approach; it’s perfect for the program executives and the EP. They can spend their time making the day-to-day program the best it can be, while the development executive (as a result of the monthly meetings) is coming up with the new ideas to renew the program."

I found it fascinating that three different executives had three completely different approaches to solving a very common problem

Keep in mind that none of these ideas are a way to automatically boost your program's ratings, but clearly there are a number of good methods for 1) identifying the source of the problem and 2) doing something about it.

And which approach did my client (the one who asked me originally for help) end up taking? It turned out that for him, Approach #1 made the most sense.

Since our original conversation, the ratings for his program (year to year) have come up again.



Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Why authenticity and "personal" storytelling are the hottest trends in news reporting

One of the most interesting developments in working with clients in news this year has been an increased focus on "authenticity."

Whether they are public service broadcasters or private commercial stations, I am seeing more news organizations asking for stories that included a strong component of "reporter involvement"  - showing the reporter "showing" something, describing something, in the middle of things "as they are happening."

Clearly this is being driven by what's being seen online and attractive because of younger-skewing demographics; newly-minted internet journalism stars like Tim Pool are always seen in the middle of their stories speaking directly to the audience; Vice Media is another organization that insists its reporters do the same.

If the reporter is good at it, reporter involvement can be exciting to watch and makes for good television (even if it's being seen on an online platform); description and a certain amount of "showing" always seem to work well for audiences.

Some reporters are simply "naturals" at this; they can easily figure out what to show and how to describe what's happening beautifully for the audience. But for many other journalists, they don't have a clue how to do that on camera, nor are they comfortable with it.

As more and more news organizations are asking their reporters to use this technique, here are a few ideas to do it more effectively for audiences, whether the reporter is a "natural" or not:

Techniques for effective reporter involvement include:

  • Strong, clear set-up within the first 15 seconds
  • Sets the scene: shows/tells what's at stake, what we will see, what we will learn
  • Structured in a logical progression leading to a payoff  ("what we learned")
  • Makes interview partner comfortable - explains story and their role in it
  • Strong, well planned description and "showing" (interview partner or reporter)
  • Innovative visual approaches
  • "Personal" - let the reporter's interests show
  • Recognize opportunities on location, i.e. "let's look around the corner and see what we find"
  • Well thought out wrap-up related to set up
  • Short summary - what changed/what we learned

A good way to practice reporter involvement technique is to "describe while driving" ... that is, in the car on the way to work, just keep a running commentary up on what you are seeing and experiencing. Other drivers seeing you doing this admittedly unusual behaviour will probably think you're in a running conversation on a hands free telephone and won't give it a second glance. And it's a good way to build your skills and confidence.

I think there's another reason more and more news organizations are leaning toward a more "authentic" approach; they sense their audiences are getting fed up with the half-baked facts and out right misleading information in trends such as branded content and "native advertising", the blending of factual content and advertising that are increasingly present online. The movement toward authenticity is simply a recognition that the audience is getting fed up with all the b.s. out there right now.

But the implications of a more personal approach to storytelling are worth considering for news organizations.  Certainly, reporter involvement is essential tool and very good for audiences. But making stories more authentic and "personal", i.e. building in more of the reporter's own experiences and individual perceptions of a story can have a significant downside. 

 It's much easier for governments and powerful interests to call a strong story into question and challenge it as simply one reporter's opinion, nothing more. A more "personal" approach to reporting could make it much more difficult for news organizations to report critically on big issues involving the actions of government and powerful interests which affect their audiences.

And one final thought: will the trend toward authenticity and personalization mean reporters and presenters will be merging into one person?  My guess is: yes. In the upcoming period we are going to see the development of more news programs told from the view of a single person "on the scene" showing what's happening and how they see it. And there will be an increasing demand for reporters who can do that effectively for audiences.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

How scientists are expressing their research visually and what it means for audiences

I have the good fortune to be associated with PRBB's "Intervals" program, one of the most exciting and innovative initiatives helping scientists communicate what they are doing in unique and more effective ways for their peers and audiences outside science.

Recently I was back in Barcelona at the PRBB to see what researchers have come up with. In an Intervals workshop on "Visual Science" the scientists were asked simply to express any aspect of their research visually, any way they wanted to. 

Check out some of these "visual expressions" of their research.

"Cooperative bacteria" by Marçal Gabaldà

"How important is the integrity of the brain?" by Elk Kossatz

"Splicing comics" by Babita Singh

"Diet Karma" by Marcos Francisco Perez

These beautiful and provocative results point to one of the more interesting trends in the use of visual language to express complex ideas. 

Each of the researchers created these visual expressions using tools readily available on the internet and open-source software. 

It's not only that new technologies are making these types of expressions possible; it's that the people who are creating them are clearly more fluent in how to express ideas visually. That of course implies their target audiences are, too, and are more receptive to having complex ideas expressed this way.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Magic Lantern and the iPhone

A recent visit to the ancient city of Girona, Spain resulted in an unexpected, amazing experience. After the all-important cafe' cortado in the plaza under the cathedral, I wandered down the hill through the old town, crossed the river on one of the many footbridges and walked into what turned out to be one of the most moving, even emotional experiences of my life. The Museu del Cinema in Girona has the world's foremost collection of the evolution of the technology that led to what we call the cinema - who knew???

I had the museum almost to myself. The experience started beautifully; I was directed into a small theatre where three screens (in triptych) were lighted up with flames against a black background. Off camera narration explained our endless fascination with telling stories visually, from the traditional Wayang shadow plays of Indonesia, to the "Magic Lanterns" of the 1700s-1800s, followed by sequences of still pictures simulating motion, then the first Lumiere Bros and Melies films, Chaplin and Hollywood... then the screen went dark and silent. After a few moments, the beam of a single white spotlight fell on double doors at the side of the theatre, which opened automatically, inviting me into the exhibition - wow!

The Museu's exhibits on three floors go chronologically and it's all about light and shadow, about storytelling and the representation of imaginary worlds. The 12,000 pieces in the collection are the life's work of a single person, an award-winning amateur filmmaker named Tomas Mallol, who spent 30 years assembling this unique and exceptional collection. 


The exhibition starts with ancient Chinese perforated balls lighted from inside and goes through the Renaissance camera obscura, paper silhouettes, phantasmagorias, magic lantern shows and the fantastic slides that showed faraway places and people, followed by the first photographs, the first attempts at moving pictures, finally to early cinema, Hollywood, and amateur moviemaking - television and digital were not represented but were written about in the catalog. At each step of the way small "cinemas" with vintage seating and settings to allow the visitor to experience visual storytelling as past generations did.


Throughout, insightfully written analysis and comments were next to the exhibits as well as thought-provoking quotes from filmmakers, like one from Robert Bresson "The talking pictures have invented silence."

As I went from floor to floor I was astonished by the recognition how our unstoppable desire to tell stories, to hear them and see them,
transcends centuries and generations. The museum showed through several hundred years how (from the Museu's catalog) "...light and shadows come together to create images, and we use our imagination to interpret the images and what they are trying express."

Central to those visual expressions is the technology available at the time. But whether it is shadows projected by fire against the wall of a cave or an iPhone, the Museu's collection illustrates a continuum, connecting our far-off ancestors to you and me. What we call "cinema"- is part of a long, long process. No matter what the time or place we live in, when we are moved emotionally by visual stories, the magic is still the same, no matter the era or the technology.

The catalog, by Jordi Pons i Busquet is a wonderfully well written document about these ideas and the history of visual expression with a useful timeline at the end; it excited my thinking. I have it right here and some study is in order. I came out into the sunlight dazed and a bit worn out by the experience. How lucky it was I went to Girona on my day off!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

How online content creators can break into the TV news business


At the MIPTV conference in Cannes during the first week of April, online content was right at the center of the annual TV programming market. Dozens of online content producers were in Cannes, explaining what they do, who is watching and who is buying.

One of the most interesting sessions for news people introduced creators of “second screen applications” – online content for mobile devices designed specifically to enhance the television viewing experience, one of the hottest trends in online content development.

News and factual programming seem ripe for second screen applications. Here are a few thoughts for creators of online content who are thinking of pitching their idea to news organizations. As potential clients, news programs have some "special" characteristics, unique from the requirements of fiction, sports, reality and game show programming where second screen applications are already well established.

First of all, there definitely is a market among broadcast news organizations (both public service broadcasters and private stations, television and radio) for these types of applications. All the broadcasters are seeking, naturally, to increase their audience share and this remains a primary focus, something they are working on constantly. This is particularly important now, in an era of increasingly fragmented market shares.

The rollout of all-digital television in Germany in 2012, for example, with 100+ new channels, adversely and dramatically affected the market share of all the biggest players in Europe’s largest television market. Some of the majors saw program ratings drop by as much as 1/3 after the digital rollout, while very other small, previously invisible channels showed a dramatic increase in their audiences. Eventually the quality of the programs and how they are promoted will even things out, but there is a lot of concern about the changing dynamics in audience share right now.

The bottom line is anything that increases (or has the potential to increase) the market share of news and factual programming will be looked at with a lot of interest, especially anything that seems to attract younger, more educated and more affluent audiences, and for sure that's how online content creators should present their services to news organizations initially.

However, online content companies should also recognize that news organizations have certain characteristics which set them apart from other types of potential clients. Doing news is a source of a lot of pride within most parent companies, giving legitimacy and credibility in a way game shows, reality programs, entertainment, sports and advertising never could. Successful news organizations consistently draw large audiences and can be significant profit centers for their parent companies and, by reporting on issues of significance, provide real value to audiences and pride for their parent companies.

Key market success factors in news include a combination of credible, compelling content and talent, a relentlessly competitive attitude and a strong focus on promotion. The producers of news and factual programming are good at what they do. It's why, despite diminishing audience share every year, television remains the dominant medium for news and factual programming worldwide, why the bulk of advertising dollars still goes to TV, and why the source of so much content online is actually television.

One of the things that makes news a tough market for the new generation of digital / online content is that many news organizations are frankly not convinced of its real value. Definitely they all know they have to be there and they are doing it just like everyone else, but because the numbers they see are not particularly persuasive, for now they are not putting many resources into it.

The online units of many of the top tier broadcast news organizations are small, with few people working on it; the budgets for online content are usually a fraction of the overall news budget. The reason is obvious. While broadcasters recognize the phenomenal growth in online users over the past few years, which they can't ignore, overall the numbers for online are still disappointing compared with their traditional platforms. Lower numbers, less resources, it’s that simple.

So, while it's important to be there, for now online content remains a sideshow for the biggest news organizations. A common perception is that online content can increase audience share marginally in the direction of younger audiences, but not as something that helps their broadcast platforms, which have far bigger audiences and which are the main source of their revenue and profitability.

Decision-makers in news are tough, skeptical people. They do a lot of audience research and understand exactly what audience share is, where it comes from and what it means to their businesses. That's good news for online content providers, who will find a receptive audience for precise numbers-driven analysis, despite the perception that many of the top television executives are conservative people unwilling to move away from what they see as their "core businesses."

But there is a disconnect between what news people hear about online content and what they can see. Many of the fabulous claims providers of online content and data services make about what they are delivering seem like rhetoric and hype to experienced news executives. For example, the fact that Twitter right now is the heart of most second screen applications could be a challenge. When people from Twitter cite a number like "3.3 billion Twitter impressions" it may not be particularly impressive to buyers in news. Many news people simply don't understand what that means, or how it could possibly be useful to their business model. The fact that the Oscars 2014 selfie (which was an advertisement organized by Samsung) was the most tweeted image of all time says a lot about Twitter, and does not necessarily enhance Twitter's credibility as a serious news source. 

More importantly, the hot new trend of "seamlessly blending" factual content and advertising into what is known as branded content and native advertising, particularly online, is anathema to top news organizations. They have battled for years with advertisers, owners and general managers who wanted to integrate ad content into news programming. Today advertising is always "fenced off" in broadcast news, and the result is the most dominant news medium the world has ever seen. Broadcasters have spent many years building the reputations they enjoy (and the audience share and profits that go with it) and know how easily those reputations could be destroyed. They will always be cautious to use any content that has advertising embedded in it. In the case of many of Europe's public service broadcasters, the practice is actually illegal, violating their mandate to serve the public transparently.

The challenge to reach these buyers will be to show news organizations how online content can build audience share on their traditional broadcast platforms. That growth can be expressed in raw numbers, or potentially even more interesting, by bringing in a new, younger demographic to broadcast platforms via online engagement. Giving broadcasters the tools, via a second screen application for example, to do this would definitely be something they would look at.

My suggestions for online content producers who want to successfully develop clients in news and factual programming include:

- Make your potential buyers understand how second screen applications are not a mirror of television but indeed a totally different experience than TV; that it enhances the viewing experience without drawing audience away from it.

- Educate them about how to value and evaluate success in the online medium; for example, explain how "engagement" - now defined as number of hits/views + time of interaction - is a deeper metric and why it important for the specific demographics they are trying to reach. Explain that value in online content is no longer only about the number of unique views.

- The fact that the content of a second screen application could be "moderated" by a journalist will be very attractive to news organizations. This will go a long way toward defusing the concerns about commercialism/branded content in something that will be associated with a news product.

- Be clear about the numbers; audience share, demographics and trends. Positive growth comparisons are good (this year vs last year, broadcast vs online, etc.) Don't worry about small numbers overall; the important thing will be to focus on growth and the potential for that, particularly among younger users and the users of mobile devices.

- Be up front and transparent about the role ad content plays in your offer. Obviously news organizations are not against advertising, indeed they are largely dependent on it, but ads associated with a news or factual program need to be clearly labelled. Assure the client you are sensitive to how transparency about ad content works in relation to the particular application they are buying.

And here's the "holy grail" – if you can show potential clients in news how a second screen application would direct a significant number or demographic back to the broadcast platform, that would be absolutely epic. If this can be demonstrated consistently and very importantly, with the numbers to back it up, you could be looking at a huge breakthrough in developing clients in news.

My sense is that most news organizations not only want this type of service for their audiences, but are starting to realize that they cannot do this themselves. More and more they are recognizing they need real experts in online content development to make it happen for them; to show them what's out there and to show them how it can be done.

When it comes to providing online content and second screen applications, the interest and the desire is there in every news organization. But the value versus the costs need to be clearly expressed, as well as an understanding of how news organizations work to both serve their audiences and be profitable.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The new "Chaplin" era

The old "nobody knows anything" attitude about the web is giving way to increasing recognition that emotional, compelling content and storytelling is proving to be decisive in drawing audiences online.

The story “structures” will be different (as television is from radio, as cinema is from print, print is from online) but structures will be found.

We are still in the “Charlie Chaplin era” of a new medium, but the Chaplin figures are out there trying to understand and write the rules right now.

Some early patterns show promise in attracting and engaging audiences online.

Successful online content producers:

Think a lot about the user experience and design content and platforms based on that.

Actively engage with their audiences and build infrastructures for that to happen.

Change program elements quickly in response to selected audience comments.

Budget more on distribution and promoting content, less on production values.

Have a solid understanding of how search drives audience to content.

Are moving away from online display ads and more toward paid subscriptions.

Seek creative partnerships with corporations and funders, not just “sponsors.”

While TV is as big as it ever was, more people are watching it the way they want to, on their computers and small screens.

The challenge for content creators and those who fund them is to identify the patterns and rules that work best to express content in the new online medium, especially for smaller screens as PCs begin to fade from the scene.

How to build an audience online

Demoralized online content creators who see "The Toilet Flushing Cat" racking up millions of hits and getting more every day should take heart... remember it's just one video.

Successfully getting audiences to consistently engage with your content online is no accident, and there are specific things you can do to build an audience online, including: 

"Easy entry" is essential. There should be no context necessary for the viewer to engage with your content. Each of your videos should be able to stand on its own: easily understandable and immediately compelling.

Minimize branding and opening credits. Get right to the action.

Short chapters engage audiences.

"Topical" works. This is especially good news for news people and news organizations. Consider what people are searching for every day. What's happening right now, what's relevant, what's new, unusual and breaking stereotypes are what people are constantly looking for and sharing online. 

Cross promotion builds audience share. Give your target audiences as many opportunities as possible to find and share your content. Have a presence and playlist on as many video platforms as possible, including YouTube, DailyMotion and Vimeo. Create a dedicted Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram site specifially about your content. When you have created something new, update each site with your new content simultaneously.

Seek subscribers. People are 20% more likely to view new content if they subscribe to it. Alert your subsciber base each time you add new content to your site.
Optimize for search. Use lots of tags and metadata. Invest time and energy into thumbnails, keywords and especially provacative, intuitively searchable titles and headlines. Make it easy for the audience to find you.

Use analytics to show who was watching and for how long; identify patterns; why are some of your videos rising ("trending") or falling off in your ratings?

What makes a YouTube star?

A YouTube star is not a celebrity but “a friend” to the audience.
An “authentic” personality who speaks about ordinary human experience.

Uses low production values...
Is intensely focused on distribution... 

Has a subscriber base..
...and actively cross-promotes content on multiple social platforms.
For example...

Jenna Marbles is a self-described “blogger and entertainer” who has uploaded about 200 of her homemade videos since 2010. According to the New York Times she is one of the few content creators to reach more than one billion hits on YouTube and twelve million subscribers.

She is not a celebrity (well, she is now) and she writes and shoots most of her videos herself in her apartment using her laptop; very low production values. 

But: she is talented and funny (and uses a lot of profanity); she is “a friend” to the audience, an authentic personality who speaks about ordinary human experiences in a very amusing way; her weekly topics include: "Interrupting Adele" (10 million views); Drunk Makeup Tutorial" (17 million); "What Girls Do in the Bathroom in the Morning" (25 million); "What Girls Do in Cars" (32 million).

She actively cross-promotes her weekly content, promoting it on multiple social platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and gets around 1 million views a day. 

As of 2013 (estimated by Comscore) YouTube has paid Jenna Marbles about $350,000 dollars for her videos.

Why the new golden age of TV is not on TV

People who say they never watch TV, especially young people, are actually huge consumers of TV programs, but they watch on computers, tablets and smartphones, getting the TV experience the way they want it.

The web medium is new, and it's a completely different experience for the user, as unique as television is from radio, as cinema is from print.

Just like "traditional" media, online content has its own rules for engaging audiences... and they are still being discovered, especially about the behavior of online audiences.

It turns out audiences are very particular about what they will watch online.

Online audiences...

...will engage only with intuitively usable platforms and content. Will not engage with platforms that don’t give them the experience they want.

...want content that is emotional, personality driven and “authentic” ( not “polished” like broadcast.)

...will share content if it reaches them emotionally.

...want their input to be a) heard and b) integrated into their favorite shows online.

...are fiercely passionate – true fans who are very loyal and knowledgeable about “their” content online.

The bottom line for online content creators? Keep in mind your audience fully expects a specific experience online - content that is easy to find, to view and interact with, to comment on and to share.