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This neurosensor could predict hit TV shows with uncanny accuracy

Asking focus groups what they think of new programming has never been that effective. What if you asked neuroscience instead?

This neurosensor could predict hit TV shows with uncanny accuracy
[Animation: gpetric/iStock; Stockfootage/Videvo]

What if TV networks could know whether they have a hit before a show airs?

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That’s the promise being made by Immersion Neuroscience, which launched the initial version of a neurotracking platform in March to measure people’s immersion in video content and live experiences via a small wearable that straps onto the forearm.

In a new study, to be released November 6, the company claims to be able to classify whether a show would be top-rated with an 84% accuracy, using only neurological data.

Immersion Neuroscience conducted the study to test whether its platform could be used to successfully predict whether a show would receive high ratings. It asked Dorsey Pictures, a television production company, to choose 25 shows for them to test retroactively–with half the shows rated as top-rated and the other half as bottom-rated, based on data obtained from Nielsen and networks.

Eighty-four participants between the age of 25-58 watched the first act of 25 different shows–mostly reality programs–in random order while hooked up to a neurosensor that measured their immersion in the show, based on heart rate and oxytocin levels. Immersion Neuroscience then used participants’ immersion levels to predict the probability that the show would fall into the top-rated category or not.

Surprisingly, self-reports by participants on how likely they’d be to watch the show only predicted top-rated shows with a 17% accuracy—in contrast to the 84% accuracy from neurological data alone. Including self-reports did not improve the accuracy of the predictive models.

According to Immersion’s CEO and cofounder, Paul Zak, someone’s neurological response to a TV show is a much better predictor than whether they think they like it or not.

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“Immersion is this unconscious emotional response that your brain just doesn’t have the ability to accurately understand,” he explains. “Everyone we talk to at the major studios realizes that people cannot accurately relate their emotional state.”

This is a real problem. Sixty-five percent of new shows are cancelled within their first season, despite a heavy investment in focus groups by TV networks for decades.

Following the results of the study, Chris Dorsey, CEO of Dorsey Pictures, negotiated a deal for his production company to be the exclusive TV production partner of Immersion Neuroscience.

“What excited us in Paul’s breakthrough research was: Could we be more efficient? Could we bring more research?” says Dorsey. “That’s why we partnered with immersion neuroscience–to help the networks get better at picking winners at the end of the day. There are a lot of smart TV execs out there without a lot of information about what’s going to win.”

Dorsey plans to use Immersion Neuroscience’s technology to test show concepts, while also using neurological data to help convince networks that a show will be a winner. “Networks spend a lot of time creating concepts and green-lighting concepts forward when they’re not going to go anywhere,” says Dorsey. “With Immersion, we can say: Here are the shows that are working, and here are the shows that aren’t working.”

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Dorsey and Zak also say that the technology can be used to improve shows by identifying which characters and scenes resonate best with viewers. By identifying periods of low immersion, showrunners could also pinpoint lulls and edit them out.

The skeptical side

Any analysis of Immersion’s study and its conclusions needs to acknowledge that the company conducted the study itself–rather than hiring a third party–using its own technology. Zak says that’s why it decided to publish its full methodology and statistical model, to be released next week. He also says that he couldn’t exert bias on the neurological data even if he wanted to.

The shows tested are also almost all reality programs. But Zak says he believes the technology would work just as well with other programming. “I think it’d be the same. It’s certainly testable,” he says, adding that Immersion is in discussions with networks and Hollywood studios to test other programming.

TV networks have long sought to predict the success of shows before investing serious capital in their release. And if the technology works as Dorsey and Zak claim, it will be a game-changer for the networks, which have found themselves faced with increased competition from streaming services and declining viewership.

Zak recounts a recent meeting he’d had with the CMO of a Hollywood studio. “She said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done, but it also scares me,'” he says. “‘Everything I’ve done in my career, I have to change.’ It changes the way you test, edit, market movies and TV.”

Dorsey envisions a future in which shows will record rough 5- to 10-minute snippets of shows, and then test what’s working and what isn’t on a neurologic level in real time. He believes this will help networks not only pick winners, but also make better shows and target folks most likely to become fans based on immersion levels.

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Networks, Dorsey says, ‘don’t want to waste money. They want to do anything they can do to mitigate risk. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than burning up inventory and seeing it fail.”

Joe Lazauskas is the the head of content strategy at Contently and co-author of The Storytelling Edge, a new book about the science of storytelling and how to use it to transform your business.

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