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CBS Turns to Artificial Intelligence to Glean Viewers’ Emotional Responses to TV Shows

CBS’s research team is getting a faster read on how viewers respond emotionally to its TV shows — by using the dispassionate logic of machines.

The broadcaster is using the data-analytics platform developed by New York startup Canvs, which uses proprietary artificial-intelligence processing to parse natural-language comments.

CBS started using the Canvs Surveys tool to automate the coding of open-ended responses to surveys fielded by its research team starting in the fourth quarter of 2018. It now uses Canvs to process feedback on its entire slate of programming and tentpole events, including viewer response to this month’s Super Bowl LIII and Grammy Awards broadcasts.

The real power of the AI system is its ability to crunch unstructured data far more efficiently than human researchers can, said Radha Subramanyam, chief research and analytics officer at CBS. In Las Vegas, the CBS Television City Research Center in Las Vegas currently conducts more than 6,000 individual surveys during its pilot-testing season alone.

“When you are running thousands of surveys, humans can’t get through all of this — you end up doing things like skimming the results,” Subramanyam said. “This saves us a lot of time, and it helps us get better insights.”

CBS shares its research with execs across the company, and also furnishes the findings to showrunners and producers. Subramanyam said the insights can help inform business decisions: For example, if fans of a show express a strong passion around a particular character, creative execs may choose to focus more on that character’s storylines.

With Canvs Surveys, CBS can now field more open-ended surveys and also expand the set of questions it includes on each one. The tool measures and categorizes consumers’ responses to characters, plot lines and other topics (like related shows), using a standard set of emotional tags such as “love,” “excited,” “bored,” “sad” or “anxious.”

When Canvs first launched in 2014, it was focused on analyzing social-media chatter about TV shows. In the past year, the company developed the new Surveys application to let researchers apply emotional-response analytics to their own data sets.

Canvs now has a lexicon of more than 1 trillion words, phrases, slang terms and idioms, which it maps to standardized emotion-based categories. “We have literally billions of comments that reflect the ways people feel,” said Jared Feldman, founder and CEO of Canvs.

Over the last five years, AI has been embraced in industries like financial services. But the entertainment industry is still in the early days of exploiting the technology’s full potential, Subramanyam said. “In media, we’re in the beginning of doing all we can do with AI and machine learning,” she said. “We’re evolving CBS analytics and research for the 21st century.”

Besides speed, CBS’s switch to AI-based survey processing also promises a more standardized analysis of viewer feedback. “There’s been a ton of standardization around closed-end surveys but there has been no standardization in the open-end, stream-of-consciousness survey space,” said Subramanyam. “Now with AI we definitely have an opportunity to have a more rigorous way of understanding emotion and language that we didn’t have before.”

Other Canvs clients have included Comcast/NBCUniversal, Fox, Turner, Sony Pictures Television and Viacom. The company is also Facebook media solutions measurement partner and has an exclusive deal with Nielsen to provide qualitative insights against Nielsen’s social data.

Canvs has raised $7.1 million in financing from investors including KEC Ventures, Rubicon Ventures, Gary Vaynerchuk’s Vayner/RSE, Social Starts and Milestone Venture Partners.

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