Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 7 September 2018

I try to write these updates to post by late afternoon on a Friday. Often–most weeks actually–I miss that optimistic target and finish them over the weekend/first thing Monday morning, then back date them to the week they cover.

Obviously the biggest story of entertainment was Les Moonves being fired, but that happened on September 9th, two days after this “update”. So I’ll cover another story and this week, but rest assured I’ll chime in on the Les Moonves controversy at the end of this week. (Or early next Monday morning.)

The Most Important Story of the Week – Broadcast TV Ratings Continue a Slide

A few weeks back, I checked in on the box office results for the summer so far. In my ideal world, all senior executives–heck, all managers period?–would “react” to data by not reacting. That’s right, in my opinion, the real-world-ification of data hasn’t made us better at making decisions. If anything, it causes us to react to bad data or uncorrelated data. (This includes “real-time dashboards” and “email alerts” for data. Even weekly updates can be misleading if the trends are sustained.)

Let’s apply this philosophy to TV ratings. Do executives “need” to know how a show did in over-night ratings, especially since they focus on C+3? For instance, the Thursday night football game from last night had a three year low in viewership. Does this portend down ratings all season? Maybe, but we won’t know. What if Sunday has a high in viewership and some combination of the teams involved, the rain delay and the fact that a lot of people (like me and Bill Simmons) hate the idea of Thursday night football games?

So we can step back and look at the ratings from the season as a whole, which the Hollywood Reporter did for us, including emphasizing that broadcast generally, and  scripted shows particularly, were down. So that trend continues. I also love learning that a show I’d never heard of–Yellowstone–was a beast in the ratings on a network most people haven’t heard of. (The new Paramount TV, converted from Spike.) Also, for all the buzz I heard about Succession, Sharp Objects actually delivered higher ratings, which I feel like happens a lot for HBO series (the more popular series have less buzz and vice versa).

Other Candidates for Most Important Story – Amazon Had Technical Problems in US Open Coverage in UK

This is one of the stories I have a feeling most people missed. In short, Amazon Prime Video is distributing live sports in various territories, like how it did in the NFL Thursday night games last year. The big debut in the UK was it’s coverage of the US Open in tennis, but it had a lot of technical issues such as a limited number of games and lagging.

This isn’t THE most important story because surely Amazon can throw engineers at the problem. But it’s a good lesson. As a community, the mantra goes that “content is king”. Don’t forget, though, that “UX is the bishop”. Or hand of the king? So the metaphor isn’t great, but know that a crappy

Big Bad Data of the Week – The Hollywood Reporter on International Film Sales of African-American movies

Honestly, I hesitate to even write this little blurb for fear of offending people. So let’s be clear: I want more “variety” in my movies (wait until my listen of the week to explain that term). I love diverse movies on a variety of topics. I celebrate those. And celebrate diverse voices in directing, acting and writing. I also think I have a better grasp on the problem than most execs (panels and reports don’t solve problems; economics do), but they will never solve it because of self-interest. (Basically, nepotism, self-dealing and bias towards class prevent true diversity/variety.)

To solve our problem–a serious lack of diversity–we need to be precise in diagnosing the problem. We have to let the data guide our decisions. The old axiom, “multiple anecdotes don’t make data” applies here. Unfortunately, too often the latter happens when discussing diversity.

I see this a lot in coverage about the success of films featuring diverse casts, including African-American, Latino and, recently, Asian-American casts. Instead of drawing an entire data set of all movies, articles such as this prominent one by The Hollywood Reporter rely on a self-selected dataset featuring a biased sample of successful movies.

To start, this is an example of the availability heuristic at work. The availability heuristic is when your brain calls out easily “available” examples. Often, these are misleading examples and not a representative samples. In films, it’s easy to think of popular/successful movies–especially if you have an emotional connection to them. It’s much harder to think of flops.

Take the sample set from the above article. These movies are hardly representative of all movies. They feature films nominated for Oscars. Oh, and a Marvel movie, either the first or second most successful franchise in film history. The alternative is to capture all movies in a given time period, give them all diversity categorizations, then measure performance. That takes time, and a lot of journalists and companies don’t take the time to do that analysis.

This is really important for the decision makers. I’ve first hand seen the availability heuristic and, more importantly, a biased sample get a 9 figure business plan launched. It later lost the company lots of money. (The key to the success of the plan? HiPPO. See here or me writing on it here.)

We have a diversity/representation/variety/inequality problem throughout our industry. We need to solve it, and bad data doesn’t do that.

Listen of the Week – “Variety” episode on Martini Shot by KCRW/Rob Long

I loved two things about this episode:

  1. The word play between “variety” and “diversity”. You can just tell by listening that Rob Long is a writer; he’s a wordsmith. Sometimes changing one word can have profound effects on how you look at an issue. This wordplay did that for me. As he points out, the examples of “diverse” films don’t feature diverse casts, they feature in some cases uniform casts, just different than traditional films. So the better word to describe that is “variety”. Rob Long says it better.
  2. He gets at why variety is so valuable. Sometimes we focus on diversity for diversity’s sake. Which may be okay. But from a business standpoint, a well-executed film featuring a unique subject matter can offer audiences something they don’t usually see. That leads to higher box office returns in general, and this applies to all sorts of films.

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