Scientists have found a way to tell if a television series will be a hit or flop by hooking viewers up to an EEG and monitoring their brain waves.
The study, led by Jacek Dmochowski from City College of New York, looked at how brain activity reacts to mainstream television viewing. Dmochowski and his research team had 16 people watch scenes from "The Walking Dead," as well as commercials from the past two years' Super Bowls. Researchers hooked the participants up to EEG electrodes that measured their brain waves as they watched.
Generally speaking, the television industry turns to Nielsen Research and social media when studying feedback on shows and ads. However, this method isn't always accurate and the feedback usually comes after the fact, when viewers' responses may already be tarnished by outside factors, such as bad reviews and friends' opinions. However, using an EEG while a viewer watches something allows for real-time information about how the brain responds when it sees something engaging. And that usually applies not to just that specific viewer alone, but to a mainstream audience.
The researchers tested this by monitoring social media discussion and Nielsen ratings. The brain activity of the volunteers watching "The Walking Dead" accurately predicted 40 percent of the discussion on Twitter and 60 percent of Nielsen ratings for that show. For the Super Bowl ads, the accuracy was even higher, at 90 percent.
"When two people watch a movie, their brains respond similarly-but only if the video is engaging," says Lucas Para, the study's senior author. "Popular shows and commercials draw our attention and make our brain waves very reliable; the audience is always 'in-sync.'"
So what exactly happens to the brain when we watch engaging television? The regions of the brain responsible for vision, hearing and attention become more active. This explains why EEG monitoring can more accurately predict specific ads' popularity.
"Interesting ads may draw our attention and cause deeper sensory processing of the content," says Matthew Bezdek, one of the study's collaborators.
Of course, Nielsen can't enter homes and force its viewers to wear EEG electrodes, but this sort of research might be handy with focus groups when testing a new television series or ad.