Since the dawn of television, executives have measured the success of a scripted show by how many people watched it "live"—that is, when it aired. Back then, live or same-day ratings were incredibly valuable metrics. They not only measured viewing behavior but also served as proxy for measuring viewers’ passion for the content.
Now, viewers who really care about a show can watch it whenever they want, and delaying the viewing occasion doesn’t mean they are any less passionate about a show. The historical link between the behavioral measure and viewers’ enthusiasm is broken.
So creators and advertisers must now answer this question: In a world where engagement can take so many different forms—different platforms, different devices, viewing at different times—how can we measure the full spectrum of attitudes and behaviors that contribute to a show’s success?
What new metrics should gauge emotional connection?
1) Real-Time Viewer Behavior
Real-time behavior tracking for TV viewers is just starting to take shape. One company installs a camera on top of the TV to track viewers' eyes. Another installs an app on their phones, using the microphone to listen to what they watch. NBC gave viewers Fitbits to measure when their heart rates increased while watching Olympic events.
Regardless of the method, measuring eyes on screen is the goal, because that proof of attention will attract more advertising dollars. Product placements and other content partnerships are no more effective than ads skipped on DVR if the viewer isn't actually watching the show.
Content that grips viewers' attention is likely to be the content they're heavily invested in emotionally. Attention metrics can help TV executives identify which of their shows audiences are truly connecting with. This new way of measuring shows will only increase in importance. Raw, live viewership will become less important.
Research question: What types of content generate high attention metrics among the audience members you care about?
2) Viewer "Net Promoter Score"
When we gather TV fans for viewer research groups, we never have trouble getting opinions. Not only do they share their favorite shows with us, they usually start sharing with everyone else in the group too.
Back in the network era, only a few channels created quality scripted programming. Buzzed-about shows were well-covered by the local newspaper's television critic, or in mass market magazines like TV Guide. But today, with television criticism so fragmented, recommendations come from all directions rather than a few trusted publications.
Every TV viewer recognizes that discoverability is a problem, and they want to help their friends and fellow viewers out. Sharing the hottest new show is also a way to look cool. The extent to which your show inspires this sort of boosterism may say more about its long-term prospects than live viewership does.
Research Question: What is the level of enthusiasm for sharing of your content? What elements of shows make them so cool/unique, the audience can't wait to tell their friends about them?
The rise of self-publishing and fan culture has changed the landscape of how fans interact with shows. People have always dressed up as their favorite characters, but today's society celebrates and embraces fandom in a way it didn't in the past. Now, fandom is cool—aided and abetted by the digital tools that make it easier for fans to connect. Behaviors like cosplay, fan fiction, and participation in online message boards indicate long-term dedication to a show, no matter when viewers choose to watch it.
We've interviewed people who consider themselves passionate fans of a show who have never watched it live—like the woman who said she saves up episodes on her DVR until she can binge watch them.
Research questions: Looking beyond the ratings, what's the viewer enthusiasm level for your content? And which aspects of your content are the sources of that enthusiasm?
Are Your Current KPIs Leading to Bad Content Decisions?
Your viewers don't really care when you want them to watch shows. They are going to watch when they want. Yet some TV networks still employ aggressive tactics that force viewers to watch in real-time. Today's audiences are smart enough to understand what's going on when you only let them watch the last five episodes of a show online, or don't put it online until the next day. Viewers tell us how frustrated this makes them. Will a person who feels like a show is patronizing them recommend it to their friends?
Forcing viewers to watch in real-time could make existing metrics sunnier to the detriment of a property's long-term success.
The solution? Consider whether you're judging shows on the wrong metrics.