WHAT ROBIN WILLIAMS TAUGHT ME ABOUT MEDIA RESEARCH
It is still difficult for me to believe, even now, that Robin Williams, someone whose infectious exuberance and wit brought so much joy to others, was so incapable of bringing joy to himself that he decided to end his life. He was undoubtedly one of our greatest performing talents, with an unmatched variety of truly memorable performances. Almost every American adult probably has fond memories of at least one of Williams’ signature roles – Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire, the genie in Aladdin, Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam, the teacher in Dead Poets’ Society, Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings, Parry in The Fisher King, Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, or Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum.
But the Robin Williams role that perhaps resonated the most with me is that of Alan Hakman in The Final Cut. It is not a particularly well-known movie; it’s not even a particularly good movie, either. But the movie’s central theme is extremely thought-provoking – and holds enlightening implications for media research.
The Final Cut takes place in a future time in which a faceless corporation has developed a device which, when implanted in babies’ brains shortly after birth, records every single waking moment in people’s lives. It’s like a video recorder attached to a person’s eyes and ears that never switches off. The purpose of this device is not to monitor media exposure or purchasing behavior. It is actually to create a film of a person’s life that can be trimmed down to a stunning two-hour video for his or her funeral. Robin Williams plays a “cutter” – a professional video editor who condenses people’s lifetimes of video into those two-hour personal films after they die. He is privy, of course, to all of their secrets, but he edits the videos to show only the flattering scenes. Use of the device is apparently universal in this fictional future; it is implanted in nearly everyone.
The plot has two central strands. One centers on an organized movement against the use of the device and the corporation that manufacturers it. The other, more interesting thread, concerns the Williams character’s guilt over an incident that occurred when he was a boy. Hakman (the Williams character) is desperately anxious to replay the childhood scene in the video embedded in his brain so that he can find out the truth about what really happened in that incident.
Herein lies the central dilemma of the movie: Williams can’t access his own video file. No one can, because it is impossible to remove the file without killing the person in which it is embedded. That’s why its only purpose is serving as a post-mortem record at funerals.
The Final Cut was released in 2004, in the midst of the excitement in media research circles over the emerging grand single source experiment known as Project Apollo. The initial Project Apollo design called for the creation of an extremely large panel that would be tasked with carrying a PPM to record their TV and radio exposure, using a scanner to record their purchases, and completing questionnaires to capture their print exposure. It seemed to me at the time, as it has since then, that the movie’s central dilemma served as an appropriate metaphor for Project Apollo: If a company tries to collect data on everything a person sees, hears, and does, the company will essentially kill that person. The research subject’s burden would be too great for most research subjects to bear. Only a small proportion of the population would agree to be observed so closely and would cooperate so fully – and these compliant subjects may be more reflective of reality show contestants than of the general population. The “final cut” is the ultimate Hawthorne effect: Observing everything people do not only alters their behavior, it completely ends their behavior.
The media research world seems to have absorbed the message of The Final Cut and abandoned such ambitious large-scale single-source experiments in the years since. ESPN’s more modest Project Blueprint, which is attempting to measure exposure to five platforms, is doing so with several different data sources and panels, with only one small calibration panel from which all five platforms are measured. Nielsen Catalina’s efforts to match media exposure to purchases are done through linking large-scale databases of transactional data, rather than a single panel whose active cooperation is required. Attribution of media effects now tends to be modeled using a number of digital data sources. Data fusion and modeling have largely replaced the holy-grail single-source panel approach.
While we all mourn Robin Williams’ passing, his legacy will burn brightly for many decades. He entertained us, he dazzled us, and he enlightened us – in all sorts of ways, including those of which he was probably not aware.