Broadcast TV: The Next Great Democracy

Broadcast TV: The Next Great Democracy

You wouldn’t expect a blog post to compare the broadcast TV to a form of government. Indeed, we rarely discuss democracy outside the context of politics. But the concept of democracy might easily apply to more than just government.

The Economist has developed what they call a democracy index that uses criteria to rate the world’s governments as full democracies, flawed democracies, or authoritarian. The highest index scores go to governments that offer all citizens an equal say and that make decisions only after considering the vote of all the people to be affected by those decisions.

But what would the democracy index look like if applied to businesses, industries, or say, the broadcast TV industry? After all, markets have a built-in voting system. Consumers constantly cast votes every time they choose one good or service or TV show over another. But having a voting system doesn’t guarantee a functional democracy. To get a high score on the official index, businesses would also have to listen to those votes and respond to the voice of their constituency.

Some industries would score high on the democracy index. They listen and respond really well. The CPG industry, for example, has developed an effective science around data collection so it knows the exact when, where, how, and who around purchases. The most successful companies then use those votes to influence what products they offer and how, where, and when they offer them.

Granted, collecting data (or votes) in the CPG industry is pretty straightforward. The broadcast TV industry, in contrast, has had a trickier go at collecting votes.

One of the principal roadblocks for broadcasters is that TV viewers, the voters, are consuming from their homes; they’re not going to stores to make purchases. In order to collect the data, you would have to show up at the viewer’s door and ask them for it. And this is precisely what happened for decades.

A flawed democracy

Nielsen, the media ratings company, began an audience measuring business for television in the 1950s. In democratic speak, they visited individual homes to gather votes so that broadcasters could have a way to hear the voice of their constituency. But because of the enormous number of TV viewers, only a limited number of homes got tracked.

Before Nielsen, the TV industry leaned toward authoritarian rule. Only a few broadcast producers made gut decisions on what content to create and where and when to show it. The ratings system elevated the TV industry to perhaps a flawed democracy (if we following the index terminology), giving producers at least an idea of what their viewers did and didn’t like. Still, the system couldn’t help broadcasters listen and respond to all or even most viewers’ votes.

What makes Nielsen’s broadcast industry a flawed democracy? They can only count a small fraction of the available votes, data gathering occurs long after the actual TV consumption, and one vote often represents a whole household even though the house might have multiple TVs.

The Nielsen process has evolved some in its 60-plus years, but the same limitations keep it from providing a full democratic experience for the industry. Other companies have successfully added some data-gathering potential with advances in TV distribution. comScore, for example, can contribute to the data set as far as cable TV is concerned. Streamed content such as OTT (over-the-top) and VOD (video-on-demand) have opened a host of data collection capabilities. But these additional vote-collecting possibilities only account for a handful of pieces to a larger, and increasingly complex puzzle.

Revolution precedes democracy

Democracy was little more than an ideal before the late eighteenth century. Sure, Rome and Athens did their best to give people a vote, but their proto-democracies quickly turned into oppressive oligarchies. By the late 1700s a busload of democracy had been pushed over the edge of a big hill and that bus has kept rolling ever since, giving otherwise silenced people a voice in much of the world.

If you study the history of the creation of these democracies you can quickly spot a pattern, a template almost, of how democracies form. Each one started with a revolution. Some were bloody, others cooperative, but they all challenged the status quo–the incumbent government–and demanded a voice for voiceless people.

The title of this post asserts that broadcast TV will be the the next great democracy. Where does the confidence come from? The arrival of a revolution. Or at least a revolutionary technology. One that has opened a way for all TV viewers to vote: smart TVs.

Smart TVs are revolutionary because they overcome the limitations Nielsen has faced for decades. They challenge the status quo.

Thanks to the internet connectivity of smart TVs, anonymized data can tell a broadcaster in near-real time what is being watched on the TV. This eliminates the need to go to the home of a viewer to ask them what they’ve watched. Plus, no more waiting until the data of many homes gets gathered on a week-by-week basis.

Smart TVs also solve the issue of collecting data from only a few homes. In 2016, there were 60 million smart TV households in the United States. Predictions by Generator Research show that by 2020 there will be 100 million smart TV households in the United States.

The onus of the broadcaster

The smart TV revolution addresses the voting issue, but remember a voting system alone doesn’t promise a true democracy. The TV industry must listen and respond to its voters. Because of advances in data aggregation software, the listening part isn’t too tricky. This software offers customizable reporting and easy-to-read dashboards. Even some interpreting and responding has been automated by technology. But bigger decisions about content can only be made by humans–producers, news directors, research directors. It’s up to them to make data-informed decisions and get out of the habit of only relying on their gut when making important business decisions.

This is why the title of the post says broadcast TV is the next great democracy. Yes, the voting is happening. And with smart TVs, more votes than ever can be collected. Even getting access to the voting results is easier than ever. But, broadcasters still have to do their part. So while the industry has the potential to be a great democracy, the onus of becoming one is left to broadcaster management.

Benefits of a democratic broadcast TV industry

Once broadcasters embrace the revolution, equip their stations with the necessary data-gathering technology, and start using data to back their decisions, the benefits of a true democracy will follow.

Viewers will get more of the content they want to watch, when and where they want to watch it. In turn, viewer rates will increase. With higher viewer rates and more specific viewer data, broadcasters can promise a more targeted audience to advertisers.

To some it seems too good to be true. The loudest critics are those who claim that smart TVs are too smart, and that the data collection process will put viewers at risk in the same way that some argue digital data collection might in smartphones and computers. The fact is, smart TV data gathering methods are entirely different from other digital approaches. Personal data is never accessed through the TV–only viewing data.

With no formidable obstacles in sight, it will only be a matter of time before the broadcast TV industry can call itself a full democracy. Assuming broadcasters take advantage of the revolutionary technologies available to them, broadcast TV could score quite high on the democracy index. That’s if the Economist would consider including non-governments in their next index.

Sam Petersen
Sam Petersen
Content Marketing Manager
Sam is a conflicted marketer. He loves being creative, but also thrives on numbers and analytics. Sam has worked in several messaging-focused roles during his career, including journalism, PR, product marketing, and now, content marketing. When he's not stewing over his conflictual identity, he heads to the mountains to hike, ski, run, etc.