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TV trends: Casual concessions

Robert Weedon | Television | Wednesday 13th January 2010

In many ways, casual viewers are the bane of programme makers' lives. We've all channel flicked, and this short attention span is becoming a much bigger problem for them, especially in today's multi-channel maelstrom, where decent programmes are now spread much thinner than they ever were in the so-called 1970s "golden age" of television when there were essentially three possibilities - BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.

Nowadays there are a myriad of other channels begging for your attention, not to mention shows 'on demand' and over the internet - after all, if you get bored of Celebrity Bum Wiping (including the National Lottery draws) on BBC1, why not flick over to Dave where there might be a decent comedy programme "like wot they used to make" on (although it's probably a repeat of Top Gear). If The Bitch Factor (a rebranded Crufts on ITV1) is proving tiresome, there might be an old Morse on ITV3. If all that's proving a bit too hard to stomach, there's always films on demand, or that DVD boxset you meant to watch, or YouTube, where somebody's probably animated a cat or driven a steamroller through a house or dressed their child as a cabbage and told them to attend a vegan's conference or something.

As David Simon, creator of The Wire, has noted, most television programmes have to make huge concessions to people who might have missed an episode or even the start of the programme by including clunky explanatory dialogue, recaps, flashbacks or a highly episodic plotline. He didn't make concessions like this, which is probably why on one hand his series is often considered "the greatest television drama series ever made", and on the other hand apparently achieved terrible ratings on its showing in the States and here (although BBC2 probably didn't help by putting it on at 11.20pm).

Ratings drop-off is the biggest indicator to TV execs of viewer interest. For example, over Christmas I noticed this article in The Guardian which stated that the BBC's recent two-part serial The Day of the Triffids "lost 500,000 viewers overnight", which sounds rather dramatic, like a grim Black Death statistic, but in reality simply means that 50 people of the 5100 people with BARB boxes in their houses decided they couldn't be bothered to watch the second part, possibly because they had short attention spans or because they had to visit their Auntie Flo that night (it was on over New Year, after all).

Given this fact, it's quite frustrating that particularly in the commercial sector, a fear of casual viewers and this sort of meaningless statistic is all too common, and is becoming increasingly evident in broadcasts and commissions. There are fewer programmes which rely on people sticking with them - fewer slow-burning drama series and fewer long-running serials. Why else do broadcasters show whole series over one week rather than keep people guessing for six? Eye-catching titles also abound, which either feel they must have a 'shocking title' to make themselves noticed in an EPG, such as BBC Three's embarrassingly titled F*** Off, I'm Ginger, which pathetically introduced the asterisks to avoid offending anybody, or simply have a title which does what it says on the tin, such as The Culture Show.

There is also evidence of this fear of channel surfing in TV documentaries, which feel the need to constantly remind viewers what the programme is about, summarising its contents every five minutes to hammer home what its just told us. Channel 4's documentary programmes are especially prone to this. (After all, ITV don't really make documentaries any more). A good example of this is archaeology programme Time Team, in which Tony Robinson tells us what it's going to be about, then tells us what the programme aims to achieve and what they have discovered so far in the episode. He does this before and after every commercial break. If one was to cut down an hour long episode to "new" material, I suspect it would run to about 20 minutes.

Annoying and distracting branding in programmes, such as animated Digital Onscreen Graphics telling you what's coming up next, or the "credit-squeeze" (where commentators talk over the end credits to tell you about other programmes availible on their network) are all designed to stop people changing channels or broadcast network. Never mind about the aesthetics or the satisfaction of the people who did want to watch the programme in peace - at least they didn't lose that bloke who tuned in because the title suggested breasts might feature at some point. Could it be that the indecisive channel-hoppers are statistically the perfect people for commercial stations - after all, are these also not the people most likely to be swayed by persuasive advertising campaigns? It's no wonder that advertisers fall over themselves to purchase the first advert in a batch.

Indeed, while all these concessions might be good for channel hoppers, ultimately they are just frustrating for people who made the informed choice to sit down and watch the programme in the first place. In a theatre or concert, if you book tickets or arrive early, you can get the best seats. If you turn up just before the curtain goes up, you'll probably be behind a pillar. If somebody arrives late, or after the interval, you'll have to work out what you've missed. Surely it's the first group of people, who had enough faith in the enterprise to come and see it in advance that are the ones who will appreciate it most, and are therefore deserving of the best, uninterupted experience?



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