Instinct vs. Statistics

David Simon Says ‘The Wire’ Wouldn’t Survive on TV Today

While showrunners mine data and pander to audiences who are busy bingewatching and reading weekly recaps, a great television show may turn formulaic.

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty

David Simon, the creator of HBO’s The Wire and Tremé, thought he was in for a fight Thursday afternoon at a Tribeca Film Festival panel on the future of digital media. “I thought they brought me here to argue with you!” Simon said to Beau Willimon, the creator of Netflix’s House of Cards, a show that has helped revolutionize the way we now watch television. What Simon got instead was a frank, enlightening discussion about the changes the media and entertainment industries are now facing and how two seemingly opposite schools of thought can potentially co-exist in the future.

The event, “Stories by Numbers,” focused specifically on the digital era and how it continues to transform the way we consume media. For the purpose of the discussion, the emphasis was on two models: the instinctual method favored by folks like Simon and Willimon, and the increasingly popular data-driven method favored by FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief (and fellow panel member) Nate Silver.

Simon has previously spoken about the latter of the two focuses––specifically, his distaste for it. For him, it comes down to the current state of television consumerism: the–in his opinion–unnecessary need to bingewatch and read weekly recaps, the ridiculous insistence on parsing over every single detail, frame-by-frame. Instead, he prefers to avoid that all-encompassing, data-friendly approach and go from the gut.

“The only place that I tend to use data is why I want to tell a story,” he said, adding that “you’re servicing the story, you’re servicing the characters…you feel responsible to the story. And if you look over your shoulder for a moment and start [hearing that] the audience wants more Omar, the audience wants more Stringer,” the show will turn into something more formulaic.

Besides ending up with a more rigid final product, another reason Simon is unlikely to switch gears is that the statistical method has never helped him in the past–and if he had ever used it, it would have backfired.

“Bigger [data] sets means you get to get your world out, you get to make a cogent argument for the story you’re telling, but if the argument has to be answered with ‘Can you sustain an audience on a Sunday night?’ I have failed consistently,” said Simon, in reference to the poor ratings for The Wire and Tremé. “In some ways, HBO is a new window, and 10 years ago when they were throwing stuff up against the wall, The Wire could survive. I am not sure The Wire could survive now. The stakes are higher for HBO now.”

For Willimon, it, too, is about instinct, not statistics. Even at a place like Netflix, a company that has a trove of data on the viewing habits of millions of Americans, the showrunner is perfectly content with creating his program without it.

“It’s still all instinct for me, because I don’t have access to that [Netflix] data,” he told the audience. “Netflix closely guards that data for a whole host of reasons and I am glad that they do. I wouldn’t want access to it. As long as they’re happy, I am happy, because it means I get to keep making the show. I think that sort of data leads to pandering, which is the antithesis to creativity.”

On the other side of the aisle, there’s Nate Silver, who believes in the power of data and how it can help advance the news. Just look at what Silver has done at FiveThirtyEight, a journalism site that relies on stats to tell stories. Granted, that doesn’t make him anti-instinct. During the panel, Silver made sure to note the importance of both methods–whether you’re a journalist or a showrunner–and to state that just because you use data doesn’t give you a blueprint of the future.

“It’s not a crystal ball, we can’t predict everything,” he said. “People screw all types of things up with data and without data. What we are trying to do at FiveThirtyEight is to just give you a little angle into something, not trying to solve every problem. People also [pit] gut instinct vs. data. Sometimes both work really well, sometimes both are crap.”

Finding that middle ground is the difficult part. Though the questions surrounding the use of data vs. creativity didn’t pop up overnight, they have been more pervasive over the last several years. Attempting to find one concrete answer in this continually changing medium is almost impossible, particularly for journalists who need to serve the viewers as well as the bottom line.

“A lot of it has to do with having taste, assuming the people reading the blog are looking to me not only for a little bit of authority but a spin or explanation of what it means,” said veteran Hollywood journalist Anne Thompson, who runs the Indiewire blog Thompson on Hollywood and was also on the panel. “There’s a huge Twilight following. And traffic is very important. But if I overdo it and I pander and I put something up just because the Twilight crowd is going to like it, I will get punished. The readers will be pissed off.”

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So where does that balance leave journalists and storytellers moving forward? Willimon and Simon seem perfectly content to continue the way they now make shows, but what about the future crop of creators coming up now? Will instinct disappear for them? Like many issues we now face in the digital era, these problems lead to more questions than solutions.

Perhaps most distressing, though is that, while those on the panel mostly agreed on how each of their respective models can be used as a positive, they all seemed comfortable sticking to their own turf. So what happens when we can’t figure out a system that helps balance those out?

“I think the term ‘instinct’ is overused,” Silver said. “I guess I used instinct when I got off the subway at 28th street and had to figure out what exit was going to get me [here] the fastest. But instinct is really a cumulated experience. I think when I am writing stories I have an instinct about what’s real in the data and what’s not.”

Added Simon, “As a journalist, I didn’t care what the audience’s presuppositions were about the issues I was covering when I started to cover them. I wasn’t trying to service the political attitude of the viewers or the readers of The Baltimore Sun. That’s why we have MSNBC and Fox [News], so you can watch the news that gratifies what you think you already know about the world. Entertainment culture is the same way. I like cop shows, I like when they do this, and if you find a show you like, the attitude of the viewers is what the viewer wants, ‘The stuff you did in the first season that you really like, do more of that shit.’ The audience is like a child. Come to the table, you say. Here’s your meal. You’ve got some potatoes, you've got some vegetables, and they want the ice cream.”

Perhaps the panel’s moderator, WNYC radio host John Hockenberry, said it best at the beginning of the event. Instinct and data are “two competing asteroids that are disrupting the media.” Hopefully, those asteroids will figure out how to co-exist, before they blow each other to pieces.