Culture Decoder: For Real?

A former cable-network marketing
executive is pitching programmers
on an innovative study that promises to decode
the truth behind the success of reality
television shows.

The study, Truth Culture Decoder: Reinventing
uses a research methodology
called semiotics — mostly used in consumer
product development to study cultural
trends — to help networks better predict the
chance of success or failure of reality shows,
said Linda Ong, president of independent
consultancy company Truth Consulting.

Ong, a former senior vice president of
marketing at Oxygen, said the semiotics approach
goes beyond traditional consumer
focus groups and qualitative study information
by looking at the cultural trends that
influence what viewers are watching. By “decoding”
hidden cultural clues and patterns
within successful shows, Ong said, the study
— which analyzes over 200 reality shows that
aired across the span of 20 years — provides
certain dominant and emergent characteristics
that can help predict a show’s success.

“Traditional consumer research is great at illuminating what people like and don’t like
— it’s very reactive,” she said. “What they’re
not good at illuminating is why people are
saying what they say.

“What the Truth Culture Decoder does is
complement all the existing research by creating
a context for why people want to watch
something.”Ong has successfully put semiotic-driven
research to the test, developing Truth
Decoder-customized reports that such networks
as Animal Planet, Sundance Channel,
MSG Media and Telemundo have employed
in setting programming strategies.

Marjorie Kaplan, president and general
manager of Animal Planet, said the network
used Ong’s research to help develop
and launch its “Surprisingly Human” tagline,
and in developing reality series Pit
. The freshman series, about a group of
little people who rescue mistreated pit bull
dogs, is averaging 741,000 viewers — above
the network’s 602,000 first-quarter primetime

“One of the cultural curves that they identified was the idea that people are looking to
reconnect with their deeper, truer selves
through the natural world, and animals are
a medium for that,” Kaplan said. “That was
very powerful research for us.”

Adapting her semiotics-focused research
to the trend of Jersey-based reality shows
such as MTV’s wildly popular Jersey Shore
and Style’s Jerseylicious, she said the success
of such programming is more about
the unique characters within those shows
rather than the broader trend of New Jerseythemed

“If people just listened to the obvious and
don’t understand culturally what the subtext
is and why something like Jersey Shore
can emerge, they’re going to say, ‘Well, we
did a Jersey show, and it didn’t work, so Jersey
must be over,’ and that’s really missing
the point,” she said. “It’s really about the microsubcultures
that are interesting to people
— people like [Jersey Shore’s] ‘guidos’ and
‘guidettes.’ It’s not about New Jersey.”

Ong is talking to several networks about
implementing the Truth Culture Decoder: Reinventing
study. She hopes that it can
be as a tool for networks to better hone into
the trends that consumers are gravitating to
on the reality front.

“Every network says they want to be relevant,
but how do you know what you’re being
relevant to unless you can connect to something
in culture?,” she said. “It’s a way of looking
at what’s going in society and using that to
feed that back into the organization.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.