What is broadcast media for?*

There is one thing that repeatedly aggravates me, and which I have experienced time and time again in my working life. It’s the phrase, ‘…but that’s what our audience wants’.

I recently read an excellent post by Susie Cairns, ‘In algorithms we trust’ and it got me thinking about this phrase again.

Although algorithms do not dictate the commissioning process in TV documentaries, audience figures, feedback and demographics do play a substantial role. The content of the science programming is still influenced heavily by audience figures and demographics – certain subjects might not be covered because ‘it’s not really what we do on this documentary’ or ‘the audience of this channel might not like it’.

Larger, historic institutions often have greater issues with moving into new territory or trying new methods of public engagement. Due to long-standing ways of doing things, there is often unwillingness or fear of featuring new content, or handling it in a different way.

But is this a problem, what is broadcast and traditional media for? Does it matter that we rely so heavily on audience numbers, feedback and giving the audiences what they want?

In this current age of digital communication where there are multiple niche outlets, specialist publications and websites, social media circles and events tailored to specific needs, anyone can find whatever they want and people whose views and believes echo their own. Does broadcast media therefore need to fulfill a role it did traditionally, telling people about information that they might not realize they need to know about as well as information they do want to find out about?

I appreciate that audience figures are important as a metric and that some institutions rely on paying visitors so giving people some of what they want is important. But does every audience member know exactly what they might be interested in? If we were to rely on people finding their own information through niche resources, could it be that they might not be exposed to whole areas of information that they might find fascinating?

Broadcasting new content or handling it in a different way may seem daunting, but sometimes you need to take risks. People trust in the broadcast media outlets and institutions. Susie outlines the origins of this trust, specifically in museums, in her blog post:

We do not necessarily trust in the particularities; we trust the processes. Is the trust that people have in museums similarly procedural? Do we trust in the process of museum work, rather than in the individual results or in the people who work in museums?

There are a myriad of assumptions that we make about people working in museums; that they are well trained and professional; that they are experts in their particular domain. We implicitly trust the people, then, and the work that they do.

With this trust comes authority – and this authority should be handled with care. Yes, take heed of algorithms, feedback and numbers, but also be aware of what the role of broadcast media is.


*this post a total rant based purely on my own experiences and I fully expect people to disagree with me…


One thought on “What is broadcast media for?*

  1. Lizzie,

    Yes, yes, yes! This is such an important issue – and one that extends to ALL broadcast – drama, factual, entertainment. You are right to note that a balance must be struck between innovation and audience expectations. However, to lean upon metrics too heavily is to disenfranchise the expertise and talents of those we employ to surprise, stimulate and delight us in media production. It also leads to spirit-sapping, formulaic broadcasts that eventually induce a self-fulfilling prophesy: if we reduce everything to *stated* audience proclivity, then of course the audience will become the only arbiter. We will have outsourced our creativity to demographic data.

    But can any audience really state what its future tastes will be?

    We are talking about innovation in its broadest sense. And it is as true of business innovation as it is of creative industries. To innovate means precisely that we don’t slavishly follow past behaviour. It’s inevitably more risky, but essential for a vibrant culture.

    My favourite quote in this respect is from the late CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs – the arch business visionary:

    “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” (BusinessWeek, May 25 1998)

    Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that the audience should be ignored, or patronised. Absolutely the reverse. The viewer should be uppermost in every producer’s mind. But such attention entails more than merely “listening.” It requires respecting an audience’s intellect so much that one can take them to unfamiliar places, and trust that they will enjoy the ride – even if it disorientates them initially.

    The reason I hate the “what our audience wants” cliche so much, is that it is lazy, and an insult to audiences hidden beneath a sanctimonious platitude.

    If we really care about what our audiences want, we must dare to show them the future – not reheat the past.

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