Once upon a time, when I was a budding TV producer in Singapore, the only “data” I had to contend with was the Nielsen ratings that came in over night. My relationship with data was “vague and distant,” which is, frankly, the way I much prefer it.
But now the era of “big data” is upon us. Suddenly, “data” is no longer just “background noise” but rather something that has real implications on how I create and share content.
Make That Next Big Hit
When it comes to “big data,” there is one question that everyone in the business of film and video wants the answer to: can big data help us make The Next Big Hit?
Is there an algorithm for producing that viral video? Will our ability to harness vast amounts of data remove the agonizing uncertainty of making our next film or video?
Netflix, a leading video on demand subscription service, claims to have cracked the code for coming up with a surefire hit. When it was developing its first original series “House of Cards,” Netflix did not rely on focus groups or surveys. Instead it turned to its gold mine of audience behavior data.
To come up with the magic formula for a hit, Netflix analyzed past viewership patterns. Netflix viewers who love the original British series were also fans of the actor Kevin Spacey and the director David Fincher. Netflix arrived at the Spacey-Fincher dream team by leveraging big data. It also mined audience data for 10 different cuts of the “House of Cards” trailers, each geared toward a different segment.
Netflix has proudly declared its first original series the most viewed show in its history. It is not just a triumph for Netflix; it is a victory for big data.
Turn the Creative Process Upside Down
Not only can big data take the guesswork out of making your next viral hit. It may turn the entire creative process upside down. While convention dictates that you should first come up with an idea and then find the audience for it, with big data, the reverse is true. You first get to know your audience and then work backwards toward the idea.
A case in point: Chinese video sharing site, iQiyi is developing hit web shows based on the search data of its parent company, Baidu. It has produced a hit cooking series based on the top 100 most searched dishes on Baidu. The most popular episodes in the cooking series have garnered tens of millions of views each.
Big Data Is All About Storytelling
Has big data taken the mystery out of the creative process, once and for all? In theory, big data can help you master viewers’ preferences, identify brand advocates, and develop massive audiences for your web series or viral ad.
So should we fire producers and directors and hire data scientists instead? Not so fast. The data scientist’s real job is storytelling. Making sense of billions of data points within the human frame is a complex task of interpretation. After all, the data may show us the “what” but only human beings know the “why.”
This is especially true in China, where video viewing data remains a black box. Video sharing sites continue to shield even the most basic of such data from the public eye. The fragmentation of the social media environment in China also compounds the difficulty of interpretation. How does one compare apple with oranges, or engagement data on Weibo with WeChat? More importantly, what does it all mean?
The big opportunity of big data can only be approached through a human lens. Before we can know what stories to tell, we need to practice the ancient art of storytelling in the very modern act of data analytics.