Monday, April 7, 2014

Imagine an all-curling channel...

Picture yourself a network executive in charge of product development. A producer approaches you with a new US cable channel based on the sport of curling. The producer supports his presentation with various graphs showing that:

Current awareness of the sport is high given its size and has trended steadily up in the period measured;

The sport is currently receiving considerable free publicity, particularly in the references and clips on late night talk shows and other sought-after spots;

Those most likely to be aware of the sport tend to be young with attractive demographics;

Sports is more resilient to competition from the internet;

The programming is incredibly cheap. Many of the leading figures in the sport have literally offered to work for beer.

As an executive, you might be suspicious of these facts (which, after all, I did just make up), but I'll bet you have another, much stronger objection, namely that Americans are aware of curling for about five weeks every four years. You can't base a network on this kind of few-and-far-between spikes in viewership. In order to make this concept workable, it will some attention-grabbing non-seasonal programming, perhaps Extreme Curling or Celebrity Curling.

This takes us to the other major quadrennial media event, the presidential elections and to Nate Silver. If you're talking about horse-race political analysis, there is no bigger star than Silver and no one who deserves his or her fame more. If you make a list of people who really understand the science of polls and elections and another list of journalists with great media savvy and extremely high profiles, you'll get a lot off names on both lists, but if you look at the intersection, you're basically down to one name.

All of this made Silver a big journalistic star every election season. When he was part of the NYT, this worked out great. Every four years he brought in a huge amount of traffic (and presumably digital subscriptions) while the rest of the time he gave the paper analytic credibility. It was a win for Silver, a win for the paper and a win for the readers.

That trickle... trickle... trickle... FLOOD model won't work for the new 538. Despite the relationship with ESPN and ABC, Silver is now pursuing more of a freestanding model like Freakonomics or even the Huffington Post. Like our hypothetical curling channel, he also needs attention-grabbing non-seasonal programming, in this case, counter-intuitive stories by controversial writers who are good at bringing in traffic in part because people like to pick away at their errors.

There are at least a couple of problems with this approach: first, this is a horribly crowded field and the chances of success are not high; second, there's a significant reputational risk in being associated with these controversial writers and, given the extraordinary reputation Silver has worked so hard to build up, this is a risk he may come to regret taking.


  1. A curling channel would be great if they went back to the old brooms instead of those scrubbing things. That "thwack, thwack, thwack" sound of brooms on the ice was hypnotic ... so they could market the channel as a trance enhancer. Kind of like Gregorian chant.

    The two issues with Silver's site so far, IMHO, are a) that real data analysis is hard and doesn't fit itself to constant publication needs and b) there aren't many things people really care about which can be modeled in a website sort of presentation form.

    One example fits both issues. They posted an analysis of basketball steals. If you read it, the presentation was essentially a case study, meaning a form of anecdote, about a single team and only 2 players on that team. No meaningful discussion of larger data sets, perhaps in part because that's hard to do and also perhaps because that doesn't fit a few hundred words in blog form. But it also doesn't connect to anything people care about. It doesn't say "bet on x" or "make this form of bet" because you now can model outcomes better using our "steal formula". It's about at the level of somewhat informed water cooler talk.

    1. I have a somewhat different take on the basketball story, putting it in the "extreme curling" category. People are talking about this because it reached what appeared to be an absurdly counterintuitive conclusion. I don't want to get into the merits of the analysis but it was clearly the counterintuitive part that was supposed to generate clicks.