Lying about TV: something I need to confess

Bunch of fibbers

It’s one of the fun things about market research, the tendency of people to tell whopping great lies when asked a simple question.

Look at this interesting experiment:

If you can’t be arsed to click on that, I can tell you that the afternoon before the second US presidential debate, interviewers went into the street to film vox pops and asked people who they thought had won ‘last night’s second presidential debate’.  And what they thought of the programme.  Many people, it seems, would rather pretend that they have watched a programme that doesn’t exist, than admit that they haven’t.

Most people do this.  They will routinely claim to have done something yesterday that happened last month, or to say that they are very interested in something that they really aren’t.  It’s a particular problem with news and other ‘quality programming’.   Once, I provided a forecast of the audience for a special TV programme which was around 250 million less than my management wanted, because I had factored out the willingness of the Chinese to make things up.  More about that here.  I used to claim that this might exaggerate a claimed audience, but what a compliment to the programme. Yes, the quantity ying is wrong, but feel the quality yang.

Then again, we all lie to ourselves. It’s why behavioural economics can be so fascinating in revealing the subconscious, and why ethnographic research where you observe people in their natural habitat is so powerful. But the human tendency to exaggerate our intellect to impress an interviewer or ourselves can produce seriously damaging results – when I worked at MTV, the research team regularly recommended flawed programming strategies because viewers told us things that were the opposite of what we needed to do.  They were so busy telling us to schedule more of the same international music and English VJs that we missed their real desire for local music and languages. I’m really QUITE embarrassed about it now.

Some of the TV research we conducted in India was appallingly misleading, because we took the word of our interviewees at face value.  I’m going red at the memory.

I’ve recommended more science news to the BBC, while feeling quite strongly that the audience members who asked for it didn’t really know what they meant.  (They probably wanted tabloidy ‘bad science’ about what food is going to kill you/ make you look younger).

Why do we tell fibs? It’s really not on

I’ve suggested to ITV, on the basis of audience members’ stated preferences, that they make programmes about clothes for normal people rather than beautiful ones, and gardening for small gardens rather than big ones.  In reality, viewers would probably much prefer something aspirational.

We conducted research in New York in which viewers claimed to love a certain news programme (I’m not telling you what), only to see them change their mind when we showed it to them.  They had a sense that they should associate themselves with the programme, but really didn’t want to watch it when exposed to the grim reality.

It wasn’t all straightforward fibbing by audience members, but wishful thinking or posing.

Smart TV people know that an audience’s carefully articulated and thought-through preferences are probably completely wrong and it’s better just to listen to what gets them excited when you actually show it to them.  Listen for the passion. What they say they want is useful but you can use that for guiding marketing, rather than for guiding programming and commissioning.   I ran a qualitative project in China for Star TV, and we heard several people saying how much they hated one of our presenters – I’d say she was like marmite, except that no-one claimed to love her.  Far from getting rid of her, the management took this as a reason to keep the programme on, on the basis that at least the audience had noticed her.  Perhaps a similar sentiment has sustained the career of Anne Robinson.

One respectable middle-aged viewer of Coronation Street, asked her opinion of a long-running character*, simply replied ‘She’s a cunt‘.

When it comes out like that, you know it’s not fibbing, but a real plea to be relieved of a character that has forced her way into this viewer’s life for decades.

Fortunately, we’ve all learnt a lot more about what is truth, what is truthiness, and what is a lie.  I’m NEVER making any mistake like that again.   True.


* I wouldn’t reveal her name if you water-boarded me.







  1. You mean all those homes we claimed in China may not have been an accurate predication? The shame…

  2. …And it was the research dept’s fault if our ratings weren’t that great. Lest you forget.

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