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.