21CF Chats: FX Networks EVP of Research Julie Piepenkotter talks O.J. and the brave new world of data


Nathaniel Brown is Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications at 21CF

Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat with me.

I’m happy to, Nathaniel! I’ll just pretend we’re sitting at a cafe sharing a cup of tea and a good gab on a rainy spring day in Los Angeles.

You guys have been on a roll with “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which you just crowned cable’s most-watched new show of 2016. Congratulations!

Thank you! We couldn’t be more delighted with the inaugural book of “American Crime Story,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” It’s one of those lightning in a bottle moments – the absolutely perfect coalescence of programming (a rich, multi-layered story that is compellingly told and spectacularly cast), marketing (no one on the planet does it better than FX), and timing (contributing to the very current conversations happening now about race, gender, and class, as well as corruption).

Yes, O.J. Simpson is on the tips of everyone’s tongues.

Our awesome media relations team did a magnificent job – they pulled out all the stops because I cannot pick up a newspaper or magazine, or read a blog, or watch or listen to news without “The People v. O.J. Simpson” being reviewed, written, or talked about with incredible insight, enthusiasm, and appreciation for how exceedingly well-done it is. It’s definitely generated water-cooler conversation, and that’s a rare thing indeed in today’s very fragmented media environment.

I still remember the whole thing vividly, including the bar I was in for the chase. But I confess, watching the show made me wonder whether I was a complete idiot and missed what was really going on at the time.

Indeed, I feel exactly the same way — and I think that’s the best part of the series: how you embark on a seemingly familiar journey, but then experience so many incredible twists and turns along the way in the dramatic tension provided by both the narrative and characters. It’s truly great television.

Approaching the series, most thought they remembered the trial and the events surrounding it, but right away in the very first episode, you’re gobsmacked because you realize that you’re about to dive into a story that you really don’t know the half of.

What’s been the biggest surprise as you pore over viewing data?

What has been the most gratifying thing about the viewership, beyond its great big ratings, of course, is how broadly based the audience is in terms of age, gender, and race.

Tell me more about the audience. I’ve actually wondered if people in their 20s knew the O.J. story.

Well, we’ve heard anecdotally that many younger viewers had a general awareness of the trial and the outcome, but without much detail, context, or understanding of the depth of its inherent drama. That being said, younger viewers watched in droves! In fact, across its run, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” regularly ranked as the most-watched primetime program on Tuesday nights among persons 18-34, across both broadcast as well as cable.

You coined a term “datagasm” not long ago – maybe you should explain to the uninitiated what that is.

Well, that was a quip to liven up a rather staid panel, but it’s really a riff on “the long tail” – the delayed gratification that occurs as viewership data aggregates over time. In the history of television up until about five or six years ago, a TV show premiered and we’d wake up the next morning to see the results, and that was pretty much that.

Now, next-day ratings tell only a fraction of the story, and we program researchers will spend the next weeks and months aggregating the additional data coming in via DVR, system-based VOD, and digital via our own and partner apps and sites – for example, FXNOW, Roku, Apple TV, and Xfinity, to name a few. It’s why in the summer of 2014, we at FX led the industry in announcing that we were no longer issuing press releases based on Live+Same Day ratings. Next-day, the data is just too incomplete to give a program its proper due.

So is “The People v. O.J. Simpson” a giant case of “datagasm”? (Promise not to take that metaphor any further.)

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” is a definite example of an explosive datagasm! The morning after the series premiere, we reported an audience of 5.1 million viewers. That’s a mere 29 percent of the total multi-platform viewership to date, which is 17.5 million and counting! What’s more – the 10 episodes across linear and digital platforms to date – has yielded a total of 143.9 million hours viewed.

So almost four times the audience viewed it after the live and same-day telecast. Boy, your job must be more complicated these days. I bet the old days – by that I mean several years ago – are starting to feel quaint.

You know, “quaint” is really the perfect word for it, Nathaniel – a hark back, as it were, to a simpler time. But honestly, it really is a whole lot more exciting (and fun) now, so long as one is comfortable with complexity – and, happily, my FX colleagues are just that. We’re the wonkiest of the wonks, and it starts at the top with our brilliant and altogether wonderful leader, John Landgraf. But complex and sometimes downright Sisyphean times notwithstanding, what’s great has been how consumers have benefited.

Now more than ever, viewers have the ability to truly immerse themselves in and engage with their favorite TV shows. From on-demand access that enables never-miss episodic viewing, to binging via DVR and/or banked episodes available on VOD and digitally for quite a few weeks after a series finale, to the rich social media experience in which viewers can not only go behind the scenes but easily post, like, chat about, tweet, and share information about the shows they watch and enjoy.

Julie, thanks so much. Great chatting with you.

Thanks, Nathaniel. This was a blast!