Welcome to the Era of the Data-Driven Programmer

Yet Algorithms Won't Replace Humans Any Time Soon

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When IFC was seeking ideas for quirky comedic programming, the network knew where to look: iTunes data. Netflix and Amazon are using innovative data analysis to shape TV and video programming, too. Yet despite TV networks' experimentation with new data sets, algorithms aren't about to replace the human touch any time soon.

"WTF With Marc Maron" and Scott Aukerman's "Comedy Bang! Bang!" got their starts as podcasts that gained followings on Apple's iTunes. For IFC, that not only reflected a potential built-in audience for a TV show, but one that reflected the subcultural sensibilities the indie-film channel and purveyor of "slightly off" humor hoped to attract. So, the network transformed the podcasts into TV shows.

"There's a particular tastemaker who we serve ... and I credit them with much of the podcast trend," said Jen Caserta, president of IFC. "It's not as simple as it used to be, solely basing decisions on studies," she said. "You can collect data all around you now."

IFC recently began working with Netflix, which is the talk of the TV biz ever since it unveiled its data-influenced approach to developing its "House of Cards" series. In the future, Netflix data might help IFC determine "the difference between the way drama is consumed on its platform and the way comedy is consumed," said Ms. Caserta.

Netflix used internal data on what its users watch to devise "House of Cards," recognizing a good chunk of them like Kevin Spacey flicks, watch movies directed by David Fincher and viewed the British version of the show. Netflix competitor Amazon also has embarked on a similar data-driven show-development project based on its own copious consumer data.

Many channels remain reliant on traditional approaches, albeit with a modern touch. Consider A&E: The cable net surveyed around 750 people online who viewed the "Storage Wars" pilot.

'House of Cards'
'House of Cards' Credit: Netflix

"When the "Storage Wars' pilot came in, it definitely needed some work," said Don Robert, senior VP-corporate research at A&E Television Networks. Viewers surveyed wanted to better understand its bid-addicted characters. One result: The lead players got handles such as "The Gambler," "The Mogul" and "The Collector."

Discovery Communications looks at a variety of modern data sets, including information from Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, video-on-demand viewing and Twitter-owned Bluefin, which tracks what people are saying about TV shows on the social platform.

"There's more of a trend for people to embrace research and information," said Laura Staro, senior VP-research and strategy for TLC and Discovery Fit and Health channel. However, although data plays a role, it's often derived from more traditional sources such as focus groups, "super viewer" panels or commissioned studies of key audiences, said Ms. Staro.

Numbers gleaned through a quantitative online series-maintenance survey drove changes for the third season of TLC's "Long Island Medium," which stars Theresa Caputo, a Hicksville, N.Y., psychic with a platinum pouf of well-varnished hair. The study revealed that viewers connected with Ms. Caputo's ability to balance her unique work life with family. So, for season three, "We expanded the creative to follow the storylines with her and her family," said Ms. Staro.

The third season's episode 16 opens as Ms. Caputo attempts to teach her reluctant teen how to do laundry. A family focus also proved a winning concept for A&E when it came to hunter hit "Duck Dynasty."

"It wasn't a show that immediately popped," said Mr. Robert. What did resonate with viewers of the pilot, however, was the "final scene, where they sit around and have dinner together," he said. "It was almost like a Waltons moment."

So, A&E's programming team asked the show's production company to create storylines rich with family tales to appeal to women in addition to the cruder content men appreciated. Season one's "Daddy's Got a Gun" spotlights Willie Robertson's concerns about his daughter dating. "Anyone who's a parent can relate to that," said Mr. Robert.

A&E subscribes to data from Truth Consulting, a research consultancy that conducts cultural analysis based on semiotics, the study of signs. The company aims to pinpoint cultural trends that could, for instance, indicate interest in TV-show themes, but its approach is more qualitative than quantitative.

Linda Ong, president and brand strategist at Truth, believes that TV data is often a reactive measure, showing what people did in the past. "Data is not the whole story," she said. "Data tells you what; it doesn't tell you why."

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