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Big Data: Media Embracing the Most Detailed Information About You Yet

The information that companies get about the consumption of their products is growing exponentially

It’s big data’s world; we’re just living in it.

If corporate America’s favorite phrase has yet to grace your ears, perhaps it’s time to crawl out from whichever rock you live under. Because big data has been slowly taking root in the media business for several years, and it’s not a fad.

It’s complex in practice but simple to define: The information that companies get about the consumption of their products is growing exponentially thanks to technology, allowing executives to understand their customers with unprecedented sophistication.

For showbiz, adopting big data will be like going from sipping through a straw to sucking on a fire hose. Because once content companies manage to get their arms around all this fragmented consumption, they’ll find the audience data much richer than what they used to use.

Instead of simply extrapolating from a sample to get a rough estimate of how many people watch a program, for instance, big data affords a pinpoint-accurate representation of how long they watched, when they fast-forwarded, what they tweeted, etc.

Forget about just counting eyeballs. Big data tells you how many times the viewers blinked and when they’re going to cry next.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Hollywood has been considerably slower to embrace big data than other industries, such as packaged goods. There is a culture in this town that has always operated from the gut.

Slowly but surely, though, that is changing. Just look at what has become of film financing, which relies so heavily on algorithms that spit out how much a movie is going to make based on who is cast and how their last movies performed.

It’s already happening in marketing and distribution too. But production is the final circle that will be hardest to penetrate. Hollywood has always been a balancing act of creativity and commerce. But big data is commerce at its most mercenary, reducing consumer appetites to ones and zeroes in a way few artists would appreciate.

Netflix, however, claims to be living proof that algorithms should be part of the greenlight process. Legend has it “House of Cards” was made because the company’s expert data-mining made clear that the BBC original, Kevin Spacey and David Fincher were all in demand among its user base. It doesn’t take an engineer to put those variables together along with $100 million from Media Rights Capital, but Netflix put Hollywood on notice.

To some degree, the firehose metaphor is not an entirely apt one, because big data is less a unidirectional flow than it is the expert commingling of many different data sources. That’s something of real value in synergy-happy Hollywood, where intellectual property is less a single iteration of anything and more a multi-headed merchandise machine. The traditional single exit point of distribution now is a two-way data source that pumps back reassembled information.

And yet the primary issue isn’t how you get all this data; it’s what you do with it when you get it. The tools to sift through this mass of information are complex. The storage required to tackle daily doses measured in terabytes is a challenge unto its own. The privacy issues are considerable. The costs to obtain it may be shrinking, but the expertise required to manage it is not something as native to Hollywood as it is to Silicon Valley, where data is the foundation for companies like Google and Facebook.

But it’s not like Hollywood is starting from scratch; marketing research has always had its place, albeit sitting in one of those chairs along the walls of the boardroom. It will be fascinating to see just how close to the head of the table big data gets to sit.

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