The year serendipity defeats the algorithm in TV land? Part Two


In this post I'll argue for the involvement of human emotions in conjunction with algorithms to inform the future direction of the TV industry.


The case for Serendipity


As discussed in the last post , there is growing evidence for the permeating influence of algorithms within the world of TV and more broadly across various aspects of our culture.

Whether we give our personal data knowingly or otherwise, algorithms increasingly know where you’ve been, what you like, where you might be going next and even why and when you’re going. They assume a level of knowledge about us based on the digital trail we leave. In a recent article in GOOD, leading Republican strategist Alex Gage discussed the use of this data in the growing political campaigning field of “predictive analytics” or micro-targeting using the “data exhaust” we all leave when online to successfully tailor political messages at the right time to the right people and in the right place.




So if politicians are getting to grips with consumer behavioural data beyond the ballot box, clearly, there is a tempting opportunity for the TV industry to make use of these technologies too. A hot topic right now is content recommendation technologies – using data to determine what content to serve up, what content we might like to see, what content to hide, ordering of ads, etc, etc. These engines are designed to help us navigate and discover content, characters, plots, stories that reinforce our world view based on our previous viewing behaviours. The idea of using this data to provide better viewer understanding both for editorial and commercial purposes is something that Channel 4 in the UK is pioneering through its ‘Viewer Relationship Management’ platform. In the same way the politician is now looking beyond the polls, TV execs are looking beyond Nielsen/ BARB.


There is, however, a growing number of critics such as author Eli Pariser who argue that a hyper-targeted, personalised world, although it may make the world more ‘relevant’, doesn’t actually make the world intrinsically or extrinsically better off. Leading digital culture thinker Clay Shirky sums up Pariser’s book the ‘Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you’ , as explaining how Internet firms increasingly show us less of the wide world; “locating us in the neighbourhood of the familiar”. The risk, as Eli Pariser shows, is that “each of us may unwittingly come to inhabit a ghetto of one”. In the book, Pariser goes on to argue;

“Personalization isn’t just shaping what we buy… Thirty-six percent of Americans under thirty get their news through social networking sites. As we become increasingly dependent on the Internet for our view of the world, and as the Internet becomes more and more fine-tuned to show us only what we like, the would-be information superhighway risks becoming a land of cul-de-sacs, with each of its users living in an individualized bubble created by automated filters—of which the user is barely aware – not exposing us to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview”.

Essentially, the data we are leaving tells whoever (or whatever) a story of who we are. But, and I think rather importantly for the world of TV and perhaps more broadly, not on who I want to be. Rather the data and resulting algorithmic predictions and recommendations are based on past behaviours rather than future intentions or will.



Connecting audiences, not devices.


There is a final factor that influences the stories we consume through TV. And that is a yearning for connection. At its most basic, humans are communal creatures. We are influenced mostly by those around us – a heavily researched sociological field popularized through authors such as Mark Earls and David Brooks books on the topic. In the world of TV, content consumption may stop when the show does but our enjoyment is heightened by the inherent subconscious knowledge that others may be watching too, inviting us to share the experience the next day with colleagues, friends etc. Or, as is increasingly the trend, connecting with people whilst the show is on: Twitter UK General Manager Tony Wang cited stats showing that 80% of under-25s are using a second screen to communicate with friends while watching TV, while 72% of them are using Twitter, Facebook and other mobile apps to comment on the shows they watch.

Fundamentally, we use stories we consume on TV to create and maintain connections in our lives.

Human editors take these last two factors into account – our yearning for connection and identifying our past behaviour may not indicate future behaviour. Algorithms do not. This final filter requires judgement through hunches, emotion and interpretation, not black and white raw binary data. There is a human opinion factor that no algorithm in the world can replicate and arguably nor should we look to create one that could. As a consequence broadcasters have relied on the linear schedule as the litmus test for content demand – the moment in our daily lives when most people are likely to be available to watch TV and (importantly) connect with others, rather than serving up content based on our personal digital ‘data exhausts’. And as a result, I would argue, broadening their audiences’ worldview.

Who’d have thought I’d have been head over heels with The Killing on BBC 4? Who’d have thought my Nan would have been into Being Human? Who’d have thought my little sister would have been increases at The Inbetweeners? Who’d have thought University Challenge would be appointment to view TV for my 15 year old cousin?


It will be important for broadcasters not to over-manage the incredible choice of content that will become available to viewers – content that won’t just be coming from traditional TV brands too. Broadcasters in my opinion should continue to attempt to broaden our world-view by delighting and surprising us on topics and ideas that we love but often didn’t expect we would – revelling in the serendipity that a mass medium can offer people. This means taking viewers on a journey, outside of our ‘filter bubble’ or beyond content recommendations generated by algorithms. This in my mind is the role for channel brands in an age of content overload. Taking us to a place somewhere we’ve never been before or, better still, even knew existed and connecting us all through these new stories.

Tim Whirledge, Strategic Planner

Image courtesy of London Business School BSR