Algorithms v Serendipity and the impact on the TV industry, Part 1


In the next two blog posts, I'm going to try and explore two cultural trends that are informing big strategic shifts in the way TV is produced, distributed, navigated and found.

In one corner, we’ve got the world of algorithms. Where clever bits of code can choose our friends, inform our governments and serve up TV recommendations based on our previous behaviour. In the other, we have the world of serendipity. Where we stumble on things we like inadvertently, where hunches pervade and TV is recommended based on the time of day it is.

Which one will win? How are they informing each other? And what does this all mean for the world of TV?


The art of algorithms


We live in an increasingly connected world. Greater connectivity has resulted in more choice. Which, on the face of it, is a good thing. Yet many argue, like psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’ that actually, too much choice can be counterproductive to a point at which it can be paralysing.

Historically the role of channel brands has been to serve up content. When there were only three channels to get your TV fix from, the barriers to entry were too great for anyone else to reach audiences of any scale, thus a natural cartel was formed, meaning viewers never really had that much choice. The role of the channel was primarily a distributor.

Along came satellite and digital distribution and the emphasis of the role of channel brands changed as the means of distribution allowed more entrants into the TV market. This meant the role of channel brands changed from being distributors of content to ‘curators’ of content, helping us manage the overwhelming choice of TV programmes that we were now exposed to.

The recent rebrand of ITV and the refocus on the channel’s relationship with audiences as the curator of content reflects this shift. As their Marketing Director Rufus Radcliffe said: “The rebrand is about cementing a relationship in viewers’ minds with the shows they love and the ITV brand”.


What to watch?


But as TV becomes connected and we increasingly litter our homes and lives with screens, the question “what do you want to watch?” becomes even tougher to answer. There is an interesting tension now brewing in the TV industry – to what extent should broadcasters look to replicate the digital success stories of hyper-targeted, algorithmically-led organisations like Google and Amazon to help navigate audiences through the vast array of content they are now served up?

Kevin Slavin, founder of a social TV co-viewing experience called Starling, delivered a fascinating TED talk where he argued that we’re living in a world designed for and increasingly controlled by algorithms. This is increasingly evident in the world of TV. In August this year at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos spoke of the taste-based algorithms his company is deploying, which are used to inform editorial decision- making in the hope of increasing the hits and reducing the misses of Netflix commissions.

But are ever-pervading algorithms a good thing for the TV industry and the broader culture at large in which stories told through TV play a hugely influential role?

Algorithms are brilliant at creating relevancy in our lives. They do a large portion of the sifting and filtering for us.

As we increasingly acknowledge though, it’s a two way street – we give up control of our personal data in return for the benefits of doing so; removing randomness and increasing relevancy. Ben Hammersley, former Wired Editor and all round digital big-brain, gave a speech earlier in the year to the IAAC. In his speech he discussed his view on “the renegotiation of the social contract because of the internet and the data on it”. He argues, “We understand the value of our data, we have done the sums and we judged ourselves in profit. If advertisers want to know my preferred brand of whisky, or be allowed access to my travel schedule, and these disclosures get me Facebook for free, with all its associated social utility and delights, then fine. Fair play. We sell our data in return for a better world, and we do understand what we’re doing”.

In the next post, I’ll go on to explore the downsides and the benefits of a world less influenced by code. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts – are you looking forward to a personalised TV viewing experience?

Tim Whirledge, Strategic Planner

Image courtesy of SilverSpore