This is the second of the excerpts from the first full draft of my book that I think it is worth rescuing from the cutting room floor. As I explained for the first one, there were a bunch of fictional scenarios that I devised imagining possible futures for consumers and for media organisations of different kinds. Some of them, including this one, were written in the form of interviews with media professionals.
This one is for a TV listings service. I was thinking specifically of Radio Times, which must be one of the longest-established services (see the Wikipedia entry) dating back to before the days of television, but now offers a website with radio and TV downloads as well as interactive listings software for your PDA. Andrew Collins, with whom I'm discussing digital discovery tomorrow, is its film editor.
You started out as a listings magazine — what are the most significant changes you've seen in recent years?
Since long before I took this job, we’ve been seeing ever-increasing competition in providing the basic listings service which is at the core of what we do. And the listings were once a fairly comprehensive menu of the entertainment and information you could get in your living room. Now the range of what’s available is so vast that it makes it impossible for any browsing-orientated menu to cover it, so we already have a potential editorial headache in terms of what to include. That's one big change.
Another is that everyone is providing some kind of listings service these days, even if it's just someone raving about a new drama series, and providing a link that takes you — on the right kind of device – straight to the pay screen to sample and view part one of the series. Although our origins are in print, we've been producing listings across multiple platforms for years and years. We were the first to provide interactive listings on your handheld PDA that turned it into a remote control for your TV, and our website is seamlessly integrated with all the services that provide clips on demand.
We absolutely have to integrate our listings and reviews into the devices that people use to watch and listen, because we know that, 90 percent of the time, people rely on whatever information is close at hand, ahead of information sources that may be more comprehensive or reliable but require more effort to consult. When the mood hits them to watch or listen, we have to be there for them.
The more personalised our service is, the quicker it is to navigate to find the items you want. But, in the face of all the fragmentation in audiences, one of the things our users value from us is in maintaining some sense of shared experience. Often there's a trade-off between personalisation and providing that shared experience, so we have to manage that.
How do you involve your users in your service?
We give them a number of options. At one end of the spectrum, there are what we think of as relatively passive forms of involvement, as when you give us the profile of programming that you've been watching and we give you personalised recommendations in return.
At the other end of the spectrum we have what we call our Indie Shorts facility where people can let us know about video dramas or documentaries that they've made, and we get them reviewed by other users as well as by some of the staff here. We've modelled it on many of the Unsigned Bands initiatives for music, and, of course, there are hundreds if not thousands of other outlets with a similar concept. Ours is on a much smaller scale than many others, but we believe it fits well with our target market, which is a fairly media-savvy audience with an appetite for innovative material — what we used to call 'edgy' before it became a cliché. We get a lot of submissions from college students and the more serious hobbyists, and we post critical feedback publicly, so people can see what the standards are, and that encourages a high quality of submission. Of course, we still get clips of pets having accidents in the kitchen, but everyone gets those…
We don't get our users to rate all the items in our listings any more. Firstly we found that there were clearly orchestrated campaigns to boost the ratings of particular items to help them gain prominence in the listings. Secondly, we found that — even if we filtered out the effects of those campaigns — the correlations between people's ratings and what they actually watched on a regular basis weren't that high. So their predictive value was pretty limited, and we found it more useful to track what people were voting for with their feet — or thumbs — by watching on a regular basis.
But we find that getting people to rate the submissions from other users is different, and creates a sense of membership of a community, because it’s much more selective. And it’s easier for us to spot anyone who tries to game the system by creating dummy users and casting multiple votes: we disqualify submissions if this gets out of hand.
One other form of involvement is that our users can add previews and reviews of programmes that we haven't reviewed ourselves, using wiki functionality. They can also add comments to the reviews we've written, but they can't edit them. We tried that, but all you need is someone sneakily to insert a "not", as in "not very good", and, even if we correct it within a minute, some of our users may have made their viewing selections during that minute, based on the altered review.
You mentioned creating a shared experience for your users — how do you go about doing that?
Well, we have to find some way to counter the fragmentation of the audience that I mentioned, where everyone is just focused on their own private media world. The Net and digital convergence have disaggregated all the old broadcast channels, so that you can watch what you want, when you want, in whatever order, and on whatever device you want. So one of the tasks we set ourselves is, in a small way, to re-aggregate those little atoms of programming into something that’s coherent and greater than the sum of its parts. We’ll never recreate channels in the old sense, but we think of it like curating, or building a playlist.
In order to create playlists of programmes that our audience will value, we have to understand them really well and we have to put together combinations that contain stuff they will like and stuff that they don't yet know they will like. Now, we could just give them a bunch of tools to make their own playlists. And of course we do that as well: you can automatically look up all the old Nicole Kidman films, or all the sports quizzes and game shows, which are available free-to-view at the moment.
But our playlists are more than just a bunch of programmes that have something in common. We try to think in terms of an evening-long 'special season' that has an angle on a particular topic, or a thread running through it, and which is a bit out of the ordinary. So for the recent 9/11 anniversary, for example, our playlist actually avoided many of the features that discussed the attacks on the World Trade Center directly, but focused instead on a celebration of New York's pioneering culture, from a documentary about the development of the city’s architecture in the Twentieth Century, through old footage of punk and hip hop acts from the city, a discussion panel, and rounding out with Gangs of New York.
We promote these playlists heavily in our listings, so almost all users are aware of them, even if they have highly personalised settings. And then we collect a lot of feedback related to them. For one thing, we can tell how many people have watched any part of the playlist, and how many have skipped through parts of it. But more than that, we have discussion forums linked to the playlists during the week for which they're active. These are facilitated and moderated by one of our team, not so much to censor contributions, but to develop threads of conversation, stimulate new ideas related to the theme of the playlist, answer people's questions, and give them further pointers. So we like to think the playlist service represents a truly premium viewing experience: one that enriches the audience’s engagement with what they watch, as well as with each other.
When do you lead viewer opinion and when do you follow it?
It's chicken and egg, all the time. There's always been a difference between stuff that is a critical success and stuff that is a popular success. The rise of blogs and suchlike hasn't changed that, because in that sense bloggers are on the same side as us. They don't want just to reflect everyone else's opinion; they want to stand up for what they believe in, and lead opinion in particular directions.
Gauging audience's preferences is a pretty sophisticated science, or craft, these days, and we can plot the 'coverage' of wider public opinion, of our target audience's opinion, and of our editorial position. Of course, we’re adjusting our position all the time to take account of trends we identify among our users. We absolutely can't afford to risk becoming divorced from what they think, because we'd lose them. The audience too can use collaborative filtering tools to see what each other likes, but that can mean that if your neighbour misses something interesting, you miss it as well. One of the unique things we do is pick out the things that the audience might pass over if left to their own devices.
How do you see your relationship with independent blogs and wikis?
I think it's a positive and mutually beneficial co-existence, and I hope it's going to get even better. I suppose I'm bound to say — to justify my salary — that day in, day out, we provide a more robust and reliably insightful service than bloggers. That comes down to our talent, expertise and professionalism, and, if we don't maintain that distinction, we deserve to lose our jobs.
But having said that, each blog tends to have its flashes of brilliance, and on its day it will outperform us hands-down. Each blogger has niche expertise and, on home territory, can probably write a better preview of a programme than we can.
Up until recently, we've just been saying that blogs can do their idiosyncratic thing, and they can do it excellently, and that’s fine. For a while, we've been licensing our core listings and reviews, so that people can include selections from them on their blogs or profiles. And clicking on these selections leads back to us, of course. Now we're starting to allow bloggers to use all the features of our platform, so they can create playlists in the fields they really know about. They can publish those playlists on their own sites, and on all the platforms for our service, and they will also be on hand to participate in the online discussion related to their playlists. We think this gives all parties — the audience, the bloggers, us and our advertisers — the optimum combination of fresh insight and broad reach.
Independent wiki-based listings sites are a different matter, because they could compete with us more directly. Using wikis for reviews and previews is tricky to manage, because, unlike encyclopaedia entries, reviews are supposed to have attitude and the possibility of bias. The wiki offerings have to decide whether they're going to add an editorial overhead by having someone choose what programming they highlight — as Wikipedia does with its home page — in which case their approach starts to resemble ours, and we compete on quality of editorial. Or they can just rely on Wisdom of Crowds methods to highlight the most anticipated programming, which does away with the editorial perspective altogether. As I said, we stand or fall on our editorial talent and professionalism.