Data Trumps Opinion, Everytime


Working out recently at the gym, I noticed several of the gym’s TVs showing soap operas. I couldn’t tell which ones – they all look pretty much the same to me. They all have attractive people looking very serious – and those people are mostly Caucasian with just a few representative minorities. There is always a crisis of some kind that requires strong emoting, the rooms are richly furnished and you can usually depend on seeing a passionate kiss or argument every 15-20 minutes. And based on the commericals the target demographic of the shows skews significantly female, although that doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out. And you’d be surprised at the number of men who watch the programs. More on that later.

Soap operas are still strong, even if the stories have be recycled for decades.

Soap operas are still strong, even if the stories have been recycled for decades.

The only time I willingly watched a soap opera was when a babysitter just had to watch Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital. After 20 minutes I was so bored I actually got up to go do my  homework, an occurrence as rare as hen’s teeth. Why they are popular is beyond me. And given the number of viewing options available today with the penetration of Cable and Satellite TV, I was thinking that soap operas must be on the way out along with the laugh track and variety shows.

After all people have more entertainment options than ever. Gone are the days when people had just 3 broadcast channels to choose from, now they might have 200 channels plus pay-per-view. Now people can stream TV shows and movies at all hours of the day via sites such as Hulu or Netflix. DVR’s allow people to time-shift shows effortlessly skipping commercials and shortening viewing times. Not to mention video games, computer games, facebook and the rest of the internet time sinks. How could daytime soap opera viewership still be strong?

I had already written, in my mind at least, a great blog entry about keeping current and anticipating the future needs of your audience and what happens when you don’t. But amazingly enough as I did the research to verify my hypothesis, I found something completely different. Soap operas have a lot of viewers and my hypothesis was just plain wrong.

While I would never watch a soap opera – I was stunned to find out that the top rated soap operas have more viewers than any news show on Cable. While the Bill O’Reilly Factor reruns (he calls them classics) are able to capture over 3 million viewers making him “King” of the 8pm time slot with almost triple the viewers of the second place news show, those gaudy numbers would barely place him a distant 3rd among all soap operas. And Keith Olberman’s news show which places 2nd in the 8pm time slot with 1.1 million viewers places him dead last when compared to all soap operas. In fact the Young and the Restless has more male viewers than Olberman has total viewers.

Take a look at the numbers – they are pretty interesting. Cable’s top ad-supported TV show, The Closer, only has 6 million viewers and the top rated soap opera,  the “Young and Restless”, with 5 million viewers would place 9th in viewership when compared to the top 20 shows on cable. Of course the next highest soap opera wouldn’t come close to cracking the top 20. Still even the lowest rated soap opera, Guiding Light, has 1.9 million viewers each week. Not exactly a number to be sneezed at.

Obviously the ratings for any single week are only useful as a snapshot in time. It takes multiple weeks and months worth of data to pull together trendlines and support hypotheses but still soap operas look to be with us for the foreseeable future. Their viewership might not be as strong as it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago but it’s still stronger than many shows on television handily winning daytime viewing ratings – week in and week out.

This is just one example of the importance of collecting data and using that data to guide decisions. It’s always interesting what happens when you collect the data about something “that everyone already knows”. Facts have a way of changing prevailing opinions.

A great example of  what happens when shifting from opinion to data is in the music industry. Billboard magazine formally collected data about the top-selling albums each week by calling select music stores and asking them what was selling – this “data” was easily manipulated and not transparent. Soundscan started to actually look at the actual sales data based on the scanned bar code of each album.

Once the industry started to believe the new data, several things became apparent. First there was the immediate ascendancy of Hip Hop and R&B. After all the store clerks “knew” that Alternative Rock outsold everything else because that is what they wanted to believe – but the data showed people bought more Hip Hop and R&B. This had an immediate effects on the industry changing programming at MTV and at radio stations around the country. Secondly, Alternative Rock was suddenly found to not be all that popular when compared to Country and the aforementioned R&B. The NY Times has a great article that discusses this in more detail, here.  

This question of fact versus fiction or opinion versus data comes up all the time in the workplace. The power of data to tell a story and shape decisions is unparalled yet too often business decisions and  product choices are based on opinions. If you don’t have any data when making a decision you have to wonder why not? Is it just not possible to collect the data on which the recommendation is based or is it because the recommendation is based more on wish than reality. 

Do you have any hypotheses that were well-reasoned but completely off base once you looked at the data? What about decisions you made where you wished you had asked for data along with a recommendation? -t

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