?Star India is among the 10 broadcasters in eight countries that will soon have access to Facebook users' comments about its shows. This follows close on the heels of a tie-up between Twitter and Nielsen to do the same.
In the Indian context this is good, and yet worrying.
First, the good part. In many ways, it completes a feedback loop that has been left hanging for ages across the media. Most large broadcasters and content firms do research, both before and during a show. Shailesh Kapoor runs Ormax Media, which researches television shows, among other forms of content. He says that tweaking or even dropping a show after seeing what the research shows is pretty normal. What the Facebook or even Twitter deals do is tell you on an ongoing basis what viewers are thinking. You could argue about the sample size, spread or other issues; but this does give advance indicators of where a show or a piece of programming is headed.
In fact one wishes that film marketers did more of this. For all the growth of organised retail through multiplexes and digital screens, film marketing and research remain rudimentary. This is because there is no loop that connects film production companies with the ones that screen it to audiences. A theatre chain sits on huge amounts of information - area-wise data on what works and what doesn't, and about the demographic that watches a film more often in an area, and so on. If PVR Cinemas, for instance, marries the geographical trend data it has to social media buzz data, then its ability to monetise a film in an area of a city improves phenomenally. Now imagine if the information on audience reactions and trends is shared with film production companies. The whole dynamic changes.
These tie-ups work particularly well for films and sports because data on television viewing from rating agencies globally tend to favour large, mass genres such as general entertainment. For instance, cricket is the most watched sport in India, followed by wrestling and football, going by TAM Media Research data for 2012. But while the television numbers say the time spent watching football is less than half of that for cricket, the buzz levels online for the two sports are equal. In that sense, the Facebook and Twitter deals become a great equaliser for niche genres.
The Facebook tie-up, in fact, is about impressing marketers with the "buzz" a show could be creating.
But that is also precisely why it could end up skewing the research and creative areas. Facebook and Twitter are better penetrated among English-speaking and young audiences because they operate in those languages. This audience is typically the sports, news or movie audience. This means all the people who watch soaps in Chennai or Coimbatore or in Dhanbad or Nagpur get excluded from what Dan Rose, vice-president of partnerships for Facebook, calls the "water cooler" conversations around television shows. This viewership, incidentally, accounts for more than half of the total time spent watching television. So television content creators and marketers need to be mindful of their exclusion.
This digging into what millions of people are saying about "a show" or "a match" can also be counterproductive. Already, digital media gets the worst advertising rates in the business because it is so measurable. Every click, every transaction can be tracked. This makes advertisers oriented towards immediate results. But the fact is that large numbers of people and lots of time spent (stickiness) also create a long-term impact. That a video advertisement for the upcoming film Carrie went viral earlier this month matters not just because of the 13.4 million views it got; it also has a spiralling effect on the buzz created around the movie, its potential ticket sales and so on. But by making it only about the actual response, marketers and digital agency people pull down the value of what they achieve.
The point? The nature of digital media makes it self-defeatingly transparent at times. Newspapers and television deliver large numbers, and get rates largely commensurate to those numbers because all that marketers can see is the impact - not the granular nuances of what a campaign does. In India, for instance, newspapers have the best advertising rates (better than television) and are the most profitable part of the media business, while digital media is the least profitable. One big reason is the overdose of data that digital media offers. Beyond a certain point, the numbers don't mean anything and take value away from what the medium offers.
And that is what this plugging into the digital world for research could end up doing to television and cable companies. That, in turn, means poor profitability, something that already dogs media firms in India. Here's hoping that these new tie-ups, then, are used for programming, not for pricing.