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Combining Best and Worst Lists to find Polarizing TV Shows

Ranker lists are expressions of people’s opinions, and it is possible for people to have opposite views. The same movie, television show, song, or celebrity can be loved or hated by different groups of people. (If this is not immediately obvious, think about Donald Trump for a moment). Social psychology has long been interested in differences of opinion, and has gathered all sorts of evidence that people will take more extreme views in an argument (attitude polarization), that they will focus on evidence that reinforces what they already believe (confirmation bias), and that they tend to judge new items and experiences based on their previous knowledge (apperception).

Ranker can provide evidence of polarization, since people’s ranks can express different opinions about the same items. This polarization can be especially clear when looking at “best” and “worst” lists on the same general topic. At the moment, it is easy to imagine Donald Trump at the top of both a “Best Presidential Candidates” and a “Worst Presidential Candidates” list. About the only way to explain this pattern of opinions is to identify Trump as a polarizing person. He doesn’t lead to one opinion or attitude. He polarizes people into “lovers” and “hater”.

Previously, we have developed cognitive models to analyze Ranker lists as diverse as the Soccer World Cup, movie box office takings, and how people feel about pizza toppings. None of these models, however, allowed for polarization. The assumption has always been that each item was perceived in a similar way by everybody. So, we extended our cognitive modeling approach to allow for polarizing items, perceived by some users with a “positive spin” and by others with a “negative spin”.

Not wanting to give Trump any more publicity, we decided to test the new model by looking at people’s opinions of recent TV shows. The two lists we looked at were The Best New TV Series of 2015 and The Most Disappointing New TV Shows of 2015. Together these lists involve 22 users — 17 in the best list and 5 from the worst list — ranking a total of 67 shows, with 14 of shows appearing on both best and worst lists. Some of the lists had as few as 3 shows, while others had as many as 27, with an average of about 9 shows per list.

Our new model assumes each TV show is represented in one of two ways. One possibility is that everybody has the same opinion, and the show is not polarizing. This means if a TV show is good, for example, people put it high in their best list, and low in the worst list, or doesn’t list it on their worst list at all. On the other hand, if a TV show is bad people put it high in their bad list and low in in their good list, or don’t mention it in their bad list at all. The new possibility in our model is that a show is polarizing, and so some people believe it is good while others believe it is bad. These polarizing shows need two separate representations: one for the “lovers”, and one for the “haters”.


The model we created determined which shows were polarizing and which were not, and how each should be represented on a scale from best to worst. The results are summarized in the graph. The shows are listed from best at the top to worst at the bottom. If a show is not polarizing, it is listed once in gray. If a show is polarizing, it is listed twice: once in green in for in its positive form, and once in red for in its negative form. The graph also summarizes the Ranker data that lead to these conclusions. The green circles indicate when a show was included in the “best” list, starting from rank 1 on the left, to lower ranks moving to the right. The larger the area of the circle, the more people ranked the show in that position. The red crosses indicate when a show was included in the “worst” list, again starting from rank 1 on the left, and again with size of the cross indicating how often it was ranked in that position.

It is clear from the figure that shows identified as polarizing — Better Call Saul, Empire, Ballers, Backstrom, and so on — generally were included in high positions on both the “best” and “worst” lists. Other shows are not polarizing: Last Man on Earth is consistently highly rated, and Schitt’s Creek seems to review itself with its name. A good question for the producers, marketers, and consumers of these TV shows is why some are polarizing. Better Call Saul, which is perhaps the most polarizing show in our results, is a nice example. It has a “lover” representation at the top of the overall list, and a “hater” representation near the bottom. One possibility is that the polarization arises is because Better Call Saul was created as a spin-off prequel to Breaking Bad, and many people would argue that Breaking Bad is one of the greatest television series of all time (and we’d agree). We guess that the people who had a negative opinion of Better Call Saul were die-hard fans of Breaking Bad, and found it didn’t match their lofty expectations. On the other hand, people with positive opinions of Better Call Saul probably evaluated it largely independent of Breaking Bad, as a good new crime television series.

Whatever the causes of polarization, it seems clear that Ranker data provide useful measures, and we think our modeling approach can lead to deeper insights. Finding what is polarizing, and identifying the “lovers” and “haters” should apply not just to TV shows, but to rappers, directors, songs, and everything else where not everybody feels the same way about everything. There is lots for us to do. Or, as Donald Trump has it: “If you’re going to be thinking, you may as well think big.”

– Crystal Velazquez and Michael Lee