Audience meters have been used for several decades as a guide to content creation. Audience members operate the computer connected meters to indicate what they like and what they don’t on a moment by moment basis.
Producers use the dials to gauge audience reaction to jokes, songs, plots, boredom – just about anything. This week, the New York Times reported that for the first time Broadway producers have been using meters in an effort to guide their shows to commercial success.
Question Number One: Do they work? Well, audience meters do show what people like. Perhaps more accurately, they show what people don’t dislike. There’s a difference. Audience meter results are indicative of the lowest common denominator. To paraphrase pollster Frank Lutz, audience meters are more useful in preventing failure than predicting success. That’s a pretty low bar.
We have all seen television sit-coms that while not exactly funny, are not exactly unwatchable. They seem to be designed by committee, created to appeal to everybody. Well, they’re really designed by focus groups (or audience meters) not to turn off anybody. And that’s the problem. Design by groups or group think leads to mediocracy.
Theater, until now, was nearly the last refuge of independent producers who used intuition to tell them what worked. That was possible when budgets were modest and they could afford to take chances. That led to some astounding flops and over the top successes. That era is now bygone. As costs have spiraled so has the imperative to succeed at all costs.
The imperative to succeed has led to the use of audience meters. They think for the producers and have led to a spate of revivals, sequels and shows brought to Broadway from other media. It has been the lowest common denominators. The shows are safe and they make money. In short, they’re mediocre. That’s what happen when talented producers follow the lead of the audience. Of course, content producers want audiences to like their material. They want them to love it. But at times producers need to follow their creative convictions to introduce and to lead audiences to the next big thing.
Where are the breakout hits? There are only so many revivals and superheroes to tap into. The real laboratory for change is on the so-called second screen, our computers. Anybody with a cell phone can create and at little or no expense there’s no pressure. We’re free to create, to lead audiences. And we’re starting to see content and talent generated on YouTube and other online outlets shifting over to other media.
In the future we’re likely to see online content vie successfully for our time and perhaps even our dollars. Other media, the mainstream media, will be reserved for big and high priced moments like the Oscars, The Superbowl and the next super hero movie. It’s simply gotten too expensive to risk failure in mainstream media. Ironically, that’s what will ultimately lead to its demise.