EDA Model of Audience Experience

Defining a Framework to Measure Audience Experience


In a five-year scientific research study, we first identified a story event structure that consistently deepens engagement and audience experience across genres. We found that to make a story engaging and interesting, the story requires some form of conflict-crisis that ignites high tension. Often the conflict-crisis challenges a leading fictional character the protagonist, in some cases involving a life- threatening situation, heightening audience tension and empathy for the protagonist. Tension that is generated by a conflict-crisis occurs during the construction of suspense, which then deepens engagement and audience experience.

In television episodic drama suspense plays three roles in deepening engagement and audience experience, firstly, during the construction of suspense in each episode, secondly, in the form of the cliff-hanger at the end of each episode, making viewers anticipate (in a state of suspense) what will happen in the following episode. Thirdly, the cliff-hanger also acts as a commercial driver to sustain and grow television audiences. 

We recognise there are other important event structures in stories that engage audiences such as surprise and curiosity. However, suspense is the only story event structure that mediates tension consistently in the story world and encourages audiences to empathise with characters to deepen engagement. Therefore, based on literature from film studies and media psychology we defined audience experience through the lens of the construction of suspense. We define audience experience of suspense by the meditation of a conflict-crisis producing three audience responses: cognition as an anticipatory stress reaction, emotion as an anxiety response and physiology, emotional sweating, detected by measuring electrical changes in the skin. 

To define and measure the construction of suspense we combined Brewer & Lichtenstein’s suspense event structure and Susan Smith’s narrative model of suspense: vicarious, shared, direct and composite suspense.

A mixed methods approach was used, triangulating three data sets: 1) Textual analysis of the story and filmmakers’ intentions to construct suspense 2) Viewer feedback was recorded after each film clip to contextualise their experience of suspense 3) Measured viewer anxiety responses using the psychophysiological recording technique electrodermal activity (EDA). 

We carried out an in-depth analysis of Smith’s suspense micro-narrative structures vicarious, shared, direct and composite suspense and also cinematic techniques (cinematography, sound, production design and editing) matching their cause and effect relationships with viewer anxiety responses to millisecond accuracy.

The main research outcome is a statistically validated EDA Model of Audience Experience that comprise three layers:

For example, the Rhythm of Engagement in the graph below reveals filmmaker’s narrative blind spots, shown by black plot points at the baseline of the graph. The graph informs us which narrative elements and cinematic techniques decrease, sustain or increase engagement.  

Turning to viewer feedback comments, 85.6% of viewer comments mentioned that they felt scared or suspense providing further evidence to support the EDA Model of Audience Experience. Using the EDA model of audience experience we developed a data driven creative storytelling process that resolves filmmakers’ narrative blind spots and deepens engagement and audience experience. The EDA Model of Audience Experience also defines a unique framework that can be used and adapted in future audience research studies and in the development of television episodic storytelling innovation.

Dr Keith Bound

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