In My Opinion: Ian MacKenzie: Can Broadcasters beat their own system, like Billy Beane?

FIRST up, it’s important to say that I’m not a baseball fan, nor am I especially gifted with complex statistical modelling and algorithms, and yet I still very much enjoyed Moneyball; if nothing else, it represented a rare modern cinematic experience: Brad Pitt in a good film.

A film deriving drama from an attempt to beat an established system by using analytical data gathered on players… Yawn, you might think, but surprisingly engaging.

On the other hand, NBA basketball remains firmly entrenched at the top of my list of US sports fanaticism; and both sports share an increasing reliance on data, with teams of smart individuals (like one of my sportswriting heroes, John Hollinger) applying the analytics.

Television? Well, we are a little late off the start line, by comparison.

Just recently, the actor, James Van Der Beek – of Dawson’s Creek fame (or is it infamy) – was reported complaining about how TV viewing is measured.

Similar challenges to the UK system have started to emerge, with series, such as Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, deriving a large share of their audience from ‘consolidated viewing figures’ rather than live (or ‘linear’) ones, thanks to the likes of catch-up facilities.

Examples like these, alongside the rising consumer prominence of products like YouView, have accelerated Channel 4’s ambition to gain better insight into their viewers habits, likes and dislikes. And they are not the only ones, with broadcasters and rights holders the world-over, seeking an edge.

What we are witnessing is mass harvesting of data by multiple media outlets that aims to help model consumer tendencies, patterns and demands.

The process is an endless iteration, and I believe that’s what it should be, rather than searching for the perfect solution on how to commission or programme content.

What Channel 4 and its competitors are seeking to achieve is a better understanding of their viewers that starts to feed into more of their ongoing creative decision-making. No broadcaster is likely to find the data blueprint for the next Saturday night entertainment hit hidden in metrics.

Channel 4 has fronted up to viewers to explain from the outset how their data will be used should they register online.

Such an approach is not universal, and frankly to be commended when compared with the data giants of the web and their approach.

This ongoing duty of care with data will only increase in importance over time, and has already been exposed as an issue for Facebook and affiliates such as Instagram. It is an exciting prospect for any business to be able to better understand and better serve its customers, but how they do so has varied in morality and effectiveness thus far.

As Seinfeld pointed out in that ‘car rental’ episode:

“See you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s, really, the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them!”

Okay, so he wasn’t arguing the semantics of responsible data use, but it’s worth checking out the exchange on YouTube for kicks. We’ve probably all been there.

Have so-called ‘sabermetrics‘ truly revolutionised baseball or basketball? In places, or some teams, Yes. But in free-market capitalism terms, the approach by the richer franchises in sports still appears to be: If you’ve got it, flaunt it!

It’s probably not a coincidence that aforementioned sportswriting hero, John Hollinger, has been recently hired by the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, the team with the lowest revenues in the NBA. Similarly, the hero of Moneyball, Billy Beane, remains employed by the Oakland A’s, one of the poorest franchises in baseball. Both are battling against the odds.

Perhaps the future holds more of the same for smaller broadcasters and rights holders in an increasingly competitive environment, an imperative to be smarter with data, iterate to innovate, adapt or die (as Billy Beane apparently once said).

Ian MacKenzie is media project manager at Channel 4’s Creative Diversity department, based in Glasgow. His portfolio responsibility covers independent, creative companies in Scotland and Wales.