The Business • (Sample) Size Matters

Audience from back.jpg

My knee-jerk reaction to turning over artistic decision-making to the audience (e.g.: focus groups, audience surveys, developmental talkbacks, arming audience members with response dials) could not be jerkier:

Stupidest thing I've ever heard of. I'm again' it!

(spits on ground)

Isn't a component of art its singular point of view? 

However...  

Creative teams have been standing in the back of darkened theaters watching and listening to the audience watch and listen to the show for ages, learning a lot in the process. And THAT I totally believe in.  What's the difference? A big difference is that the audience isn't aware they're being watched*. Also, it's the whole audience (at least for that performance) not a fraction thereof.

Last week there was a piece in the Wall Street Journal about Amazon Studio's data mining efforts in regards to their new original programming.

 

Amazon Mines User Data in Search of TV Hits

 

Fascinating stuff. Where I turned around while reading the article was when I realized their sample size was ALL viewers. Not some.

When I was in the touring company of Monty Python's Spamalot  our director, Mike Nichols, came out to Chicago to slap us around a bit. We had made our first move, from the wonderful, smallish Colonial Theater in Boston to the "big, white, sloppy barn" (Nichols' words) that is Chicago's Palace Theatre. Our performances had, well, grown. Basically, Nichols had come to tell us not to let the audience tell us what the show was, but for us to tell them. Fairly 101 and absolutely right. He did, though, acknowledge that you can't ignore the information the audience is giving you. (Example 7,897,567 of the cognitive dissonance that is working in the theatre). I know he was quoting someone, I can't remember who, when he said, 

"Here's the thing about audiences: individually they're idiots**. Together, they're pretty smart."

And I thought, huh. That's true. That's why the old-school creatives stood at the back of the house surveying the whole herd. Not passing out surveys, not asking random ticket holders to stay behind to chat.

Amazon's vast surveillance capabilities may have brought them closer to the back of the house.

 

* uncertain which principle to apply, Heisenberg? Try the observer effect.

**for a good time, check out the etymology of the word idiot , which adds nicely to the audience theory

Christopher Gurr