‘Truthiness’ In TV

Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. As defined by  Stephen Colbert – the Colbert Report


Speaking at a conference last week, I quoted an OFCOM figure about the resilience of linear broadcast viewing in UK television. After my talk I was accused of lying about it by an audience member.   It was a strangely shocking moment because the person in question seemed completely unmoved by the proof that it was a recent OFCOM number and not a personal insight.  They resorted to the standard old humbug of ‘well I don’t watch any live TV anymore’.  They were convinced that they truth they felt in their gut was more true than an exhaustively researched OFCOM number.

The TV industry seems to be particularly prey to lies and misconceptions being peddled like this.  In one respect, this is understandable as there is a huge amount of Silicon Valley money resting on the idea that TV is ‘failing’.  Tech companies are banking on the idea that they can ‘re-invent’ the most important (and from an advertising point of view ‘lucrative’) mass medium.    It is therefore in their interests to mis-represent or ignore the reality of today’s linear broadcast viewing figures. Bake Off’s 14.6M audience last week is seen as an aberration not part of a normal season’s viewing.

Silicon Valley seems to have two approaches to this mis-representation.  Firstly, the persistent exaggeration of their own numbers through the reporting of weird micro data points.  We are constantly told things like ‘we had 25 Billion clicks today’ – numbers which on analysis add up to tiny ‘audiences’ in traditional media terms.  This is what Thinkbox call ‘Numberwanging’.

The second mis-representation approach is just blatantly repeating statements that aren’t true. Its why we continually hear things like ‘nobody watches TV channels anymore’ or the more frequent ‘young people don’t watch TV anymore’, ignoring the hard data that shows both these statements are untrue.  The trouble with these false statements is that they are seductive and pernicious. They are seductive because we have an industry of senior execs struggling to stay up with tech trends, and who want to sound ‘hip and down with the kids’.   These lies provide easy throw away lines for the ageing media hipster who has lost the ability to read a research report or draw meaningful insight from data.

However, the fact that these lies persist in the face of reasoned arguments debunking them is more worrying. As the old adage has it ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on’.  As with all good ‘truthiness’ scams, these are very hard to knock back because to do so implies defending a status quo or a vested interest.  Worst of all, its too easy to attack the defender, accusing them of the most heinous of all media crimes – ‘not getting it’.   I am frequently accused of being an old TV industry insider, because I quote OFCOM, BARB and Thinkbox numbers, when I was under the impression that I ran a digital media consultancy.

But the difficult realisation for the media industry is that the persistence of the lies is predominantly a training failure at both senior and junior levels.  The idea that, in a time of perpetual change, senior management need to be perpetually retrained is paid lip-service to by most media companies.  The most frequent and glib response is to send managers on a ‘learn to code’ workshop.  The idea that a senior manager in a media company needs to learn to code is absurd.  They need to learn to critique technology stats, not write Java.

At the bottom of the pile there is a generation of younger employees who are missing out on basic media training because they are part of the ‘digital-first’ generation. It can be shocking to spend time with junior agency people and experience how little knowledge they have of the fundamentals of TV.  Anyone joining an agency to work in online video should be sent on a BARB course and taught to read audience data before opening their mouth at a conference or on Twitter.  They should be able to critique all media without favour, based on absolute data – not on what some barista in Shoreditch told them.

The media industry has to become more robust at beating down the lies, at conferences, in the press and face to face.  But this has to start with our own staff.

Our only hope in this world is that some of the lies that Silicon Valley has told about its own media are finally coming back to haunt them. The idea that ‘online video is the only truly targeted and/or measurable media’ was the original bit of digital ‘truthiness’.  It sounded great so it had to be true.  These statements have now been exposed by the recent data scandals in social media and programmatic advertising.  From a truthiness point of view, it is great to have facts about this, because I have spent too long thinking ‘intuitivelyand “from the gut” that they were talking nonsense. Now we know its true.

2 thoughts on “‘Truthiness’ In TV

  1. Dan Andrews Reply

    Great article and well argued Nigel. The other thing you have not mentioned is people’s own bias when they report their own viewing behaviour and their tendency towards a sort of “linear blindness” – whereby people understate the amount of linear viewing they do in a week – possibly as a result of it being passive viewing as opposed to the active process involved in searching for, selecting and watching something online. I would be interested to see large-scale quantifiable data on this,are you aware of any companies who have looked in to this in any meaningful way?

  2. Catriona Tate Reply

    Good points, well made Nigel.
    Marketing Professor Marc Ritson would no doubt agree with you judging by his article today.
    He studied how the Rio Olympics were watched by Australians across the Seven TV Network. Only (only) 1.9% of all the minutes watched were digital. I’m not knocking digital in anyway way, I love the choice and freedom of watching it offers. I am in support of your rallying call to measure apples against apples and look afresh at the audience data.

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