Unimaginable Audiences: why broadcasters miss their targets

A recent article in Ad Age Mediaworks discusses the success of more “conventional” shows like the new NCIS spin-off, NCIS:LA, noting that broadcast networks are shying away from “clever, unique concepts that drive buzz and conversation” and opting for clones of successful programs as a safer bet for ratings. One part of the article caught my eye in particular. CBS-entertainment president Nina Tassler explains in the article that “Because ‘NCIS’ has such a loyal following, you really have to respect the viewer and stay very close to the original brand,” which makes sense.

What makes less sense to me, however, is that respecting the viewer and the original brand meant “Taking the cookie-cutter route,” at least at first, though there will eventually be  “some degree of originality and creative choice-making,” presumably once the spin-off has cemented its own following.

The Lure of Industry Lore

This me thinking back to the discussion on “industry lore” at the kick-off plenary panel at Media in Transition 6 last year, where the panelists discussed the prevalence of executive decisions based on what the industry makes broad presumptions about what their audiences want without thoughtful consideration as to why. Knowing who is watching what doesn’t give enough information for insight as to what people are watching for and why. Without that, all you know is that X number of people — sometimes of a certain type — like something. This is what leads to the “cookie-cutter” logic — you don’t know why they like something or what specifically they like, so your best bet is to duplicate the entire thing.

All of this speaks not to a lack of imagination on the part of producers, or a lack of taste on the part of audiences. It speaks to the growing insufficiency in how we measure and analyze audience engagement. Ratings and demographic data are important, but they’re not enough to understand the ever-changing, ever-fluid audience formations that we are witness to. Moreover, they inspire industry lore — that women watch soap operas, men watch pro-wrestling, ethnic and racial minorities watch programming featuring ethnic and racial minorities, etc — and shut out potentially rich new audience markets that can’t be anticipated. This is something I realized in my research on East Asian television fans online, when I asked why it was that while network offerings such as AZN struggled and eventually failed, the fan-driven distributors online were flourishing. While the answers are considerably more complex, deep at the heart of it was this: fan-driven circulation catered to the audiences that existed, while industry efforts catered to an audience that they imagined should exist.

Audiences in the new media landscape audiences are more participatory, interacting and forming communities with one another, which in turn makes them unimaginable in two key ways:

Audience Fragmentation, Fluidity, and Diversity

First, they are increasingly impossible to define along any single vector of identity. Demographic information such as gender, class, race, and so forth are still relevant, but we cannot let them limit our interpretation of the audience from the outset. As Sonia Livingstone points out, “[i]n the new media environment, it seems that people increasingly engage with content more than forms or channels – favourite bands, soap operas or football teams” (2004: 81), so that communities are formed around shared tastes rather than social determinations, resulting in groups with diverse backgrounds and motivations.

In short, knowing who your audience is doesn’t tell you who they are as an audience member. We take on different identities as participants in different activities. This is why I continue to emphasize the need to think about audienceship instead of audiences, about what viewers do and how they engage, rather than whether they’re a 45-year-old suburban housewife.

Audience Visibility

Second, the activities of audiences and fans online are now so radically visible that we no longer have to imagine them. We no longer have to guess at why people watch things and what they watch for based on quantitative data. We have access to rich reserve of qualitative information with just a few clicks. The audience may be, as Livingstone puts it, a “moving target,” but at least it’s a target that we can now see and track in ways we couldn’t previously.

These concepts apply strongly to brands as well, where it is similarly not only important to know who your consumers are, but how they use your brands, and what your brands communicate to and for them. Brands and media properties, like technologies, are tools and resources of communication. As such, we must understand not only who uses what, but the methods and motivations for use.

Of course, taking the time to understand audiences and consumers in this way. It is of course both easier and safer to just reproduce a working model. But we shouldn’t act as if there are no other options.

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