Back in October, movie ticket seller Fandango was caught manipulating the star ratings on their website in a dishonest, misleading way. Users rate movies on the service, through a 5 star scale, and an average rating is then displayed to illustrate the sentiment of the average moviegoer. The average rating is always rounded to a half-star.
FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey crunched the numbers and found that, when this rounding occurred, Fandango was always rounding up. A movie rated 4.6 or 4.7 would become a 5, not a 4.5. In 38 cases (out of 437 movies), a rating was actually bumped a full half star or more. In other words, a 4.5 becoming a 5.
Suffice to say, this story gained a lot of traction and it has certainly impacted how people view Fandango and even online movie ratings in general. Fandango blamed technical glitches, and it appears that they have fixed the problem.
Fandango’s Rotten Tomatoes
This story gained a new wrinkle today when Fandango announced they had acquired Rotten Tomatoes, the well-known aggregator of film reviews. Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus rating is influential and widely-cited. As an example, if you view the Wikipedia page for any movie, you will almost certainly find that movies Rotten Tomatoes score mentioned in the “reception” area of that page.
You don’t have to look hard to find people critical of the acquisition, who suggest that having Fandango as an owner makes the site less trustworthy. One of the big reasons given is the FiveThirtyEight article.
There was already a conflict of interest with Rotten Tomatoes’ previous owner, Warner Bros. (Time Warner). As part of this deal, which also included streaming service Flixster, Warner Bros. takes a 30% stake in Fandango, with Comcast (NBC Universal) owning the other 70%. That’s a whole lot of people, who are in the business of selling movies and making a lot of money doing so, that are now controlling an influential movie ratings site.
But the Fandango ratings issue, from 4 months ago, still looms large in this discussion.
I believe that Fandango could turn this around, though I doubt they’ll do what’s necessary to try. They may have fixed the problem, technically speaking, but talking about glitches and releasing statements doesn’t address the outstanding credibility issue. Because of how they skewed reviews, they have lost trust. Here’s how I would tackle the problem.
They should hire a high profile movie critic (not necessarily one that works in traditional media; it could be a respected YouTuber, for example) and put them in charge of the newly-formed Integrity department. This department has one goal: ensuring that you can trust the ratings and reviews on their network of sites.
It would be even better if this person was supported by a strong community hire that understands moderation and user-generated content (UGC) really well. I don’t know anything about community operations at Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps there is already a really strong candidate over there who could be promoted.
Community overseeing integrity is a model that both makes sense and is not unprecedented. Kickstarter’s community head is responsible for their integrity team, which focuses on verifying that the content you see on Kickstarter is trustworthy.
Leave Them Alone, But Tell Everyone
And then you let that team operate as a company within the company. Give them the authority, tools and resources to win back trust, and get out of their way. Create a strict separation between money/sales and community/integrity.
Tell everyone that you are doing this. Make a huge deal out of it. And then follow through. You won’t win everyone over (the conflict of interest is still there), but I feel like you might be able to get back to the level of trust Amazon generally enjoys with regard to customer reviews, Goodreads and the other UGC efforts that it owns.
The sooner, the better. It wouldn’t even take all that much money to do it. But if they don’t, the level of trust that people have in Fandango and, by extension, Rotten Tomatoes, may continue to slowly erode.