The Science of 'Hate-Watching:' What Trump Is Teaching TV Execs

Strong Emotions Drive Viewership, and 'Hate' Keeps People Coming Back

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For decades, TV networks have tried very hard to generate viewer loyalty. A common, simple formula: Make them love the characters and plotline and the audiences will come (and keep coming back).

But that strategy overlooked a lot of unlovable characters, including many who have captured viewers' imagination -- from Archie Bunker on "All in the Family" to Eric Cartman on "South Park" to Walter White on "Breaking Bad" to about one in every two reality-TV characters.

Donald Trump on the series 14 finale of 'Celebrity Apprentice.'
Donald Trump on the series 14 finale of 'Celebrity Apprentice.' Credit: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Donald Trump, a veteran reality-TV character himself (complete with a trademark catchphrase, "You're fired!"), seems to know exactly how to push not only the "love" buttons but the "hate" buttons. No matter how you feel about the former "Apprentice" star turned presidential candidate, he's clearly connected deeply with his diehard fans, while also provoking outraged responses from his detractors -- which is making for an explosive cycle of comments, controversy, walk-backs and general media spectacle.

What's going on here? Trump is leveraging what he learned about connecting emotionally with viewers from his reality TV days and is applying those lessons to politics. Most politicians try to bond with voters by expressing emotions such as compassion for their challenges. But the "You're fired!" guy doesn't do compassion. As his years on "The Apprentice" and "The Celebrity Apprentice" suggest, Trump obviously feels like he knows what works for his persona and personal branding.

Emotion matters

We now have data showing that, when it comes to TV shows, the decision to watch next week's episode can be driven more by emotions than you'd expect, and different ones than traditional sentiment analysis would suggest.

Simply put, building a fan base that keeps coming back requires more than just "liking" a show. In fact, viewers are less likely to tune in again because they "like" something than if they express other emotions such as "beautiful" and even "hate." (Yes, "hate" indicates a likely increase in viewership the following episode.)

Strong emotions also drive purchase decisions. Industry studies suggest creating shows that drive emotion, any emotion really, is not only good for ratings, it's good for show advertisers as well. Recently, Canvs conducted a study evaluating the relationship between viewer emotions and viewership the following episode. Canvs looked at more than 5,700 episodes from 431 TV series that aired over 18 months ending June 30, 2015. The researchers then correlated that data against Nielsen ratings data on adults 18 to 49 watching those shows live or same day. The goal: to see how different emotions might predict repeat viewership of shows.

The biggest reactions were around "hate-watching." A 1% increase in Twitter posts about a given drama or reality show episode that express "hate" correlates with a .7% rise in the show's ratings the next week. "Hate-watching" brings people back for more. ("Love" matters too, the research shows, just not as much as you might think.)

The bottom line for Donald Trump, a veteran of 14 seasons of reality TV (between "The Apprentice" and "Celebrity Apprentice"), is that he's leveraged the negative emotions surrounding his campaign into an undeniably compelling version of politics as a reality TV-style spectacle.

But how much "hate" is too much? Trump's negatives have surged so high that, by June, almost 70% of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of him, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll -- unprecedented for a major-party presidential candidate. Other polls continue to put his unfavorability ratings at record levels for a presidential candidate at this point in the election cycle.

At the same time, while Hillary Clinton has the second-highest unfavorables on record (at 55% in the same June poll), since the conventions she has slowly been building large leads in the battleground states whose electoral votes typically decide who gets to occupy the Oval Office.

For TV executives, the lesson here may be that hate-watching can help drive your programming, but there's a limit to what audiences will take. At a certain point, you'll need to mix in some love and beauty as well if you want to capture a winning and sustainable constituency for your show. Regardless, emotions matter, and your job is to make sure you stir them in the people who would watch (and talk about) your show.

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