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Cracking the Code: What’s the Value of Behind-The-Scenes Content for a Science Series like KQED’s Deep Look?

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Deep Look cinematographer and lead producer Josh Cassidy filmed newts mating in the Japanese pool at the University of California Botanical Garden, in Berkeley, in February 2015. Credit: Gabriela Quirós, KQED

It’s a typical promotional tactic: show people how the sauce is made and people will be more interested in that sauce. But, are the results worth the time and money it takes to capture “the making-of”? “Of course!” you might say if you are thinking of a feature film, documentary or the latest TikTok star. But, what if you have a small production team, high production values and not a lot of extra time or resources to capture additional footage or photos of producers out in the field, let alone create behind-the-scenes videos for all of your 100+ episodes?

To be more specific, for an award-winning, public media YouTube science and nature series like KQED’s Deep Look, which delights its audiences by exploring unusual, tiny animals and plants up-close in ultra-high definition, how do you quantify and assess the value of different kinds of behind-the-scenes content when your original short videos are so fantastic at engaging your target audience?

Deep Look was originally created to reach a younger science-inclined audience and it has achieved this goal as 70 percent of its viewers are aged 18-34, much younger than the traditional PBS primetime viewer or listener. And the series is a success in terms of its engagement metrics -- it’s KQED’s most popular online production with 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube and over 180 million views. Nevertheless, Deep Look’s audience on YouTube is predominantly male, 70% male to 30% female. (This prominent gender disparity was explored in an earlier study which preceded Deep Look’s foray into the study described below related to its behind-the-scenes content.)

Deep Look’s viewers mostly see tiny extraordinary creatures on screen with an off-camera female host to guide them through some surprisingly sticky -- and at times gruesome dilemmas, especially in the insect world. Deep Look episodes take about six weeks to produce from start to finish, and 2-3 hours of footage is filmed for each three to four minute episode.

KQED science’s engagement staff thought that behind-the-scenes videos and photos showing Deep Look’s producers, cinematographer and the scientists they work with could make the series more relatable and accessible, and engage a wider audience. Engagement staff were eager to have more behind-the-scenes content that would also help to humanize the series by showing how much care, effort and attention goes into filming each episode and reveal the stellar production staff that creates Deep Look. But it was challenging for the Deep Look team to capture behind-the-scenes content while simultaneously creating their primary content. And sending out a second crew to accompany the Deep Look team was costly.

“Shooting in nature is always a challenge and wildlife is always unpredictable,” says Josh Cassidy, Deep Look ’s cinematographer and lead producer. “From a technical point of view, you’re taking expensive electronic and optical equipment out into inhospitable environments. There’s never a guarantee that the banana slugs or turret spiders will cooperate. It’s all about staying flexible and being persistent. We don’t have a lot of time to capture extra behind-the-scenes type of footage because we don’t want to miss the amazing behaviour of the animal we came out to film.”

KQED’s science engagement team was eager to discover the true value of Deep Look behind-the-scenes content. They had produced a few behind-the-scenes videos that were never officially released on Deep Look’s YouTube channel for fear that the behind-the-scenes videos would negatively affect how the YouTube algorithm treats Deep Look’s regular videos. These behind-the-scenes videos were only linked to as promotional tools on KQED’s social media platforms.*

Working closely with science communication researchers from Texas Tech University as a part of the NSF-funded Cracking the Code Project, the engagement team decided to use Deep Look’s, decorator crabs and sand dollar episodes, which both have full behind-the-scenes videos, photos and out-takes, to develop a survey to answer the following questions:

Are there measurable benefits to providing audiences with behind-the-scenes content?
If so, are the benefits from providing high-quality produced behind-the-scenes video content greater than those from providing other, less resource-intensive types of behind-the-scenes content, like photos and video out-takes?

1,045 participants from a nationally representative population sample of men and women took Deep Look’s behind-the-scenes survey. Participants were randomly served up the two Deep Look videos cited above to watch with different types of content added to the end of the videos such as: fully produced behind-the-scenes videos, behind-the-scenes-photos, behind-the-scenes unedited, out-takes, as well as, a version of the Deep Look videos where viewers see Deep Look’s female host introduce the original videos.

The survey revealed some surprising results. “One of the most important takeaways from the survey is that simple behind-the-scenes photos seem to be just as effective as more elaborate behind-the-scenes videos in helping Deep Look reach its missing audience of more science curious women and might have the benefit of reaching a new audience -- women low in science curiosity,” says Asheley Landrum of the College of Media & Communication of Texas Tech University.

Below is a summary of the key findings of the behind-the-scenes survey.

1. The measurable benefits of appending a fully produced behind-the-scenes video to a Deep Look episode appear to exist primarily among individuals outside Deep Look’s target audience (science-curious individuals). Women low in science curiosity who watched the produced BTS content rated Deep Look as more authentic and demonstrated greater engagement than women of similar science curiosity who only watched the original episode. On the other hand, men low in science curiosity who watched the original episode perceived Deep Look as more authentic than watching the episode with the appended produced BTS video. There was no difference in feelings of connectedness, perceptions of authenticity, or engagement among individuals with high science curiosity.

2. A short behind-the-scenes slideshow may be a resource-efficient way of increasing engagement not only among Deep Look’s traditional audience (highly science-curious men), but also among two very different audiences—women who are science curious and those who are not. Highly science-curious men who watched the Deep Look episode with the appended BTS slideshow reported greater perceived authenticity than men of similar science curiosity who viewed only the original episode. Highly science-curious women were greatly engaged in both conditions. Women indifferent to science who were in the BTS slideshow condition, too, were more engaged than similar women who saw only the original episode.

3. Appending unproduced BTS content (i.e., raw BTS video) to a Deep Look episode does not score as high among science-curious women compared to viewing just the original episode. Women high in science curiosity perceived the episode with the attached unproduced BTS video as less authentic and demonstrated lower engagement than similar science-curious women who viewed only the standalone Deep Look episode.

4. Overall, people who are more science curious report feeling more connected with the series, report perceiving the series to be more authentic, and demonstrate greater engagement with the content than people who are less science curious, regardless of whether BTS content was added or not.

You can read more about the survey design and the full report, called “A ‘Deep Look’ at the Potential Benefits of Behind-the-Scenes Content” here and below. To learn more about the Cracking the Code project visit kqed.org/crackingthecode.

* (Note: At the time of the design of this behind-the-scenes study, the YouTube Community Tab did not exist, which currently makes it much easier to engage Deep Look fans with short posts and messages about the production process.)

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