“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. “ Niels Bohr

You get asked the question “what happened?” a lot (and I mean a LOT) when you work in research, no matter the industry. What happened with the DR marketing response rate? What happened to ticket sales at this week’s game? What happened to last night’s ratings? What happened at the polls? Researchers are tasked with finding explanations for some extremely complex issues from seemingly very innocent questions, and it’s up to us to have a handle on the marketplace to be able to answer them. Of course, we’re not always right and no amount of analysis can overcome subjective opinions. But that’s what makes the job of researchers so interesting.

Some industries have clear cut rationale that may be affecting the outcome that was expected. I’m biased, but media, particularly TV, has so many variables that it’s nearly impossible to ever completely answer the “what happened” question. So many factors affect the ability to get viewers on any particular night: overall TV lineup, new marketing campaigns, weather, family events, power outages, Xbox live session, new Netflix availability, phone call, you name it – all of these factors and thousands more play into decisions about what to watch. The fight for time on the set is a constant, quickly evolving and intoxicating game. Layer on top of this the fact we don’t have a direct-to-consumer relationship in measuring performance, but rather a sample ratings system in between us and the consumer. Media researchers compile massive amounts of data and use experience and intuition to understand the marketplace to give a lucid explanation of what happened on any given night or with any given show. 

That’s all well and good, but what does that have to do with prognostication? After all, a more important question to ask is “what’s going to happen.” A researcher worth his salt will salivate at the opportunity to answer that. Somewhere between tomorrow’s weather report and futurist’s 50-year outlook, TV researchers need to advise their respective companies on what we believe is going to happen. It’s the opportunity for research to step out from behind the wall of data and make an impact. Seeing into the future is as much art as it is science, but its grounded in the understanding people have of their customers and what they see happening around them.

 Does that make TV ratings, focus groups, surveys, ethnographic studies useless? Quite the opposite, it makes understanding the past and, as best we can the present, more relevant. Primary and secondary research all tell important parts of the story that should not be excluded. Plenty of big name authors and executives concern themselves with the validity of different research methodologies, but they miss the forest for the trees. It’s never about one study or finding the single solution for understanding consumers. It’s about piecing the solving problems with only one-third of the equation available. It’s about using the right research tool to help further the answer to whatever question needs understanding. No research study should be relied on as the absolute truth, but as building blocks to understand the future.   

So what do we do about predicting the future? Media technological fragmentation is here and only growing. I wrote part of this article on my work computer, part of it on my iPad (any spelling errors probably originated there) and finally reviewed it on my home laptop before sending it off. And that was just for one short article. We know already the explosion of devices for viewing video, but what does that mean? Researchers have a unique viewpoint to offer as advocates for customers and viewers, as well as understanding the financial and creative implications of decisions that have to be made.

I have seen the recent CTAM 3DTV study, in which National Geographic Channel content was included. 3DTV is fascinating, and very little is known about what the future holds, but we can’t rely on what people are doing today with it. The study is a foundation for what we can learn about the future and not stating what 3DTV is or will be. Taking elements we learn from this and other studies on 3DTV, understanding what behavior is today with sports, games, movies and non-fiction content, and thinking about our own content or offerings start to put the map together for what the future can hold. It’s not hard for me to predict that seeing a giant great white shark swim full speed at you in 3D is pretty awesome. It has to go beyond that, however. How can research help NGC predict its needs for 3D and other changes in the marketplace?

Research is most effective when it’s used strategically and looking forward. Yes, research can and should look for explanations of what happened. I love answering the question every day about ratings (no, really, I actually love that). However, research should use those explanations to guide understanding of future behavior and opportunities. In other words, use your researcher to help invent your own future.

[Brad Dancer is Senior Vice President for Digital Media & Research at the Networks of National Geographic. Brad can be contacted directly at

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