Eric’s Blog

Three ideas for solving ratings problems

A long-time client in factual television came to me with a problem those of us in the television business know all too well. A successful program was losing audience share, and he wasn’t sure 1) why, 2) how to turn things around, and 3) how he should respond to the situation.

I turned to three other clients, all of them experienced executives in factual television and none of them the same market as the original client and asked how they would approach the situation. Interestingly, everyone I spoke with had different approaches to tackling the same problem.

Approach #1: focus on the team, not the ratings

The first idea is from the executive producer of a successful prime time factual program covering celebrity and entertainment news. She says,
“…if the team is working well, that’s something very good. Reward them when they do a particularly good job. Ratings come and go but good teams are hard to find.”

If the team doesn’t seem to be working cohesively, if there are problems with performance, communication or results, identify the patterns and ask why.

Approach #2: evaluate the work process using an outside coach

The second approach is from the long-time head of news talent development and journalism education for one of Europe’s biggest private television stations.

“An outside view can tell you things about how people are working that you didn’t know” he says. For example, if people are doing “double work.”

Choose someone specialized in optimizing organizations. This person does not necessarily have to be in the media business. They can also be working with other industries; what’s important is they are experienced in identifying problems and can suggest solutions

To identify the source of the problem, apply core values and methods consistent with the corporate culture and traditions:

  • How we communicate effectively
  • How we manage teams
  • How we motivate
  • How we handle problems in the team

The process is ongoing. Step one is the initial observation, evaluation and recommendations for action or change. The second step comes a reasonable time later (3-6 months) when another observation is done, to see if the recommendations have been taken and what the effect (positive and negative) has been.”

Approach #3: establish a “development mentality”

The final idea is from a senior vice president of factual programming from one of Europe’s top private broadcasters.

He says the first thing, always, is to try to understand why the ratings are down. Did it have to do with the team? Or with the lead-in? Or with the competition? But he says “even the best ideas stop working. I strongly feel that factual programs need to be renewed, and often.”

He takes an analytical approach and identifies patterns. The first step is to compare the new ideas each season. Look at the past three seasons. Are the ideas the same? This could have a direct bearing on the ratings.

Next, analyze the ratings patterns – look at the ratings per quarter hour for each of the past three seasons. If the ratings drop at the beginning, but pick up at the end, its one kind of problem. If they go down at the end, it’s another kind of problem.

Finally, establish the development mentality. “The program has to be ‘re-born’ often” he says. “Maybe as much as every week, probably every month, certainly every season. It doesn’t happen by itself; you have to make it happen.”

The executive producer is responsible to make sure there are new things for the viewers, all the time. The EP has to be the kind of person to ask specifically for new ideas, to demand them (the ideas themselves do not have to come from the EP.) He or she has to insist all the time

The first question is, are there people on the team who have the development mentality? These are people who see that the opportunity to develop new ideas for television is an advantage, not a problem or a burden. They are people who welcome the idea to try new things (and are not afraid of failure; failure is often associated with new ideas.)

If there is no one on the team with this mentality, you have to go outside the team. The drawback is when you go outside the team you start with nothing – someone who knows nothing about the program. Also, the team will not react well to outside input generally.

The best solution is always to have these “development” people internal to the team, with (perhaps) some outside input.

Designate a person to lead the development initiative, but not the EP. This should be someone who is eager to develop new ideas for the program, an inside person, someone internal to the program, someone who is a kind of leader, a deputy of the EP.

Their responsibility will be 60% their usual job, and 40% development of new ideas. Once a month, this person convenes a meeting with a specific result intended – a lot of new ideas. The development leader will bring ideas (from the internet, outside sources, etc) that have caught their eye, and the people at the meeting will bring their own ideas.

These ideas will be small and weird, usually. At the meeting, led by the development executive, the group will decide which ideas to pursue. At the conclusion of the monthly meeting, the EP will then demand the list of new ideas from the development executive.

One key element: no executives (definitely not the EP) or senior program people are allowed in the development meeting – because these are people who think they know what works, in other words, “we never do it that way.” This will stifle the process.

It is completely the responsibility of the development executive to manage this, and to bring the new ideas to the EP. Then the EP has to take at least some of the ideas and make them happen in the program.

For sure the people at the development meeting will want to see their ideas tried, and they will have to be tried or the process will not work. Many of the ideas will fail but some will work. The successes will lead to renewal of the program.

The key is that the EP and the senior management have to give the ideas the time to work. They have to give new ideas the chance to work and they have to recognize that failure is also part of the process.

One final thing about this approach; it’s perfect for the program executives and the EP. They can spend their time making the day-to-day program the best it can be, while the development executive (as a result of the monthly meetings) is coming up with the new ideas to renew the program.”

I found it fascinating that three different executives had three completely different approaches to solving a very common problem. Keep in mind that none of these ideas are a way to automatically boost your program’s ratings, but clearly there are a number of good methods for 1) identifying the source of the problem and 2) doing something about it.

And which approach did my client (the one who asked me originally for help) end up taking? It turned out that for him, Approach #1 made the most sense. Since our original conversation, the ratings for his program (year to year) have come up again. Interesting.