cover story

Avoiding pilot error

By tracking its users' intent to watch fall shows, handicaps the new TV season
November 1, 2012

Television viewers are all over the place these days, tuning in via computers, tablets, and phones, at odd times, and in unlikely places, many far from ye olde couch. “Appointment viewing”—watching a show during its regular prime-time broadcast—has dipped from 93 percent to 79 percent of viewing in just the past year, according to research. At the same time, TV providers want to know where to invest their marketing budgets, and journalists covering the industry and audiences alike want to know what is likely to survive before they invest a lot of time and attention in something new.

The Watchlist is starting to provide clues, according to Christy Tanner, exec VP and general manager of TV Guide Digital (not to be confused with TV Guide magazine, which is now a separate company). Two years ago, she says, the site added an “I’ll Watch” button to its TV listings—analogous to a Facebook “Like”—and the response to that encouraged the TV Guide team to build a tool that could track user interest more definitively. (There is plenty of tech talent in-house, since the core of the business is its proprietary listings; in fact, Tanner says the staff is split evenly among editorial, business, and engineering.)

The Watchlist aims to give viewers all their options for finding what they want to watch: via broadcast, on-demand, streaming, and DVD. Users create a profile, and then choose TV shows, movies, actors, and sports teams they want to follow. “It’s all the ways to watch in one place,” says Tanner. “It’s the TV Guide of the future.”

It’s also the user behavior of the future. “When we launched [on] in August 2011, we thought everyone would just wait till fall to add the new shows,” says Tanner, but surprisingly, “people were adding new fall shows before they were ever on. We found that New Girl was the most ‘added to Watchlist’ show by mid-August, and that became the breakout show of the season.” Audience taste predicted eight of the top 10 new shows, and this year, users started to add shows as soon as they were announced at the industry upfronts in May.

In August, TV Guide released an iOS app incorporating the Watchlist, and usage surged. As of October, Tanner reports, “over 750,000 [users’] Watchlists have been created—275,000 of those in the last six weeks. By mid-September, we ended up with a top-10 list which right now seems pretty credible.” Because of the commitment users demonstrate by creating a profile, plus the built-in tune-in reminders, TV advertisers have sponsored the project “since Day One,” she says. (An integrated ad unit prompts users to “Add this show to your Watchlist.”)

Doesn’t Twitter offer similar hints? Yes, but any mention of a show, positive or negative, is counted. “I’m not dismissing Twitter data,” says Tanner. “But for tracking TV as a horse race in which ratings are the currency, last year we found Watchlist was a good indicator, and this year it looks like it will be a solid indicator of ultimate ratings success.” Stay tuned . .

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Cyndi Stivers is a former editor in chief of CJR