Not over the moon 

30 April 2010

Last Saturday, viewers of Doctor Who on BBC One in England were abruptly treated to a caption promoting “Over the Rainbow” which appeared shortly before the end credits during the final climax; an event that perhaps unsurprisingly triggered a barrage of complaints on the subject such as this open letter from Den of Geek.

Here’s the offending caption for anyone who missed it, which would include viewers outside of England as well as those watching Doctor Who on BBC HD:


If you wish to see the ‘captioned’ ending for yourself, here it is on YouTube (contains spoilers for “The Time of Angels”):

The BBC term for this style of promotional caption (when displayed during a programme) is an “in-programme pointer” – or IPP – which is ostensibly designed to prevent viewers from switching channels when a programme has just finished, although sometimes this technique could have exactly the opposite effect if the following programme is actively disliked.

Normally this sort of thing is the preserve of commercial channels who are desperate to prevent viewers changing channels immediately when a programme finishes, although some people have argued that if these same channels didn’t bombard their viewers excessively with promotional messages this sort of thing wouldn’t be strictly needed.

(Or for that matter if those same channels actually invested in real programme content that people want to watch on a regular basis as opposed to repeats of cheaply produced reality TV that are well past their use-by date.)

Anyway…the BBC has used IPP’s before, especially on BBC Three which specifically targets younger viewers who are supposedly more prone to channel-hop than anyone else, but on the ‘main’ channels this form of promotional device had generally been used with a relative degree of restraint, if at all in recent months.

Given the significant disruptive potential of in-programme promotions, it’s at least rather surprising that the BBC would risk doing such a thing to their flagship drama series, therefore any suggestion that this was some form of public reaction test does have a good degree of credibility.

That same evening saw the introduction of a new specially-themed promotional package for BBC One’s Saturday evening lineup, featuring a special ident and accompanying promotions that had been created by Aardman Animations, therefore it was obviously an important promotional occasion for BBC One in particular.

But did the BBC’s marketing department get too carried away on this occasion with their driven desire to self-promote, which in turn went beyond a boundary of acceptability that arguably shouldn’t have been pushed in the first place?

Indeed this very issue has been raised by someone who claims to be responsible for scheduling these sort of promotions on a specific, unnamed commercial TV channel; you can read the article they have written on the subject (as also featured on the Den of Geek website) which outlines the reasoning employed so that you can judge for yourself.

This individual claims that the effectiveness of such promotions can vary from fairly drastic to negligible (my guess is that he or she could work for BSkyB), but whilst there is a reasonable chance that these promotions may work and have relatively few complaints from viewers, then broadcasters will have no compunction whatsoever in using them.

Broadcasters naturally have private access to minute-by-minute ratings data for their TV channels, and obviously such detailed information is highly valuable for commercial reasons therefore is kept strictly confidential and isn’t available to outsiders under any circumstances.

However in relation to Doctor Who there is at least some (more limited) data available in the form of ratings taken at five minute intervals; we can use these figures to at least prove that there wasn’t a massive benefit obtained as a consequence of Auntie’s recent promotional experiment.

Of course such a comparison cannot be truly scientific or definitive since there are lots of variables involved (which can also change from time to time), but this is perhaps the best we can do without access to those minute-by-minute ratings figures.

For any such comparison to be valid, the two programmes being compared have to be essentially identical as well as both being on the same channel on the same day of the week (BBC One on Saturday); in this case it’s Doctor Who followed by Over the Rainbow, and Doctor Who has to finish at more or less the same time on both occasions.

(The latter is important because viewers are more likely to be changing channels on the hour/half-hour when the majority of television programmes are timed to start or finish.)

This rules out a comparison with the previous Saturday’s Doctor Who (“Victory of the Daleks” on 17 April) because that was timed to finish nearly fifteen minutes later than “The Time of Angels”; however the previous week’s “The Beast Below” (10 April) finished at a similar time as “The Time of Angels” and was still followed by Over the Rainbow.

Now for the figures themselves, but please note that BARB still holds the copyright for this data and is only quoted under fair use provisioning.

Firstly, here are the ratings for the end of Doctor Who “The Beast Below” followed by Over the Rainbow, on 10 April 2010 with no IPP:

18:55 6.79m
19:00 5.68m
19:05 4.87m

Secondly, here are the ratings figures for the end of Doctor Who “The Time of Angels” followed by Over the Rainbow, on 24 April 2010 with the added IPP:

18:55 6.94m
19:00 7.01m
19:05 4.81m

(The reason why there is a more progressive fall in ratings shown in the first table is most likely to be a result of Doctor Who finishing just before 19:00, with some viewers having already changed channels by 19:00.)

Comparing the highest and lowest ratings figures from both sets of data reveals, well, not a lot of difference, which does illustrate that at least on this occasion the combined attractions of Graham Norton, Andrew Lloyd Webber and a gaggle of Dorothys weren’t nearly enough of a draw to make the IPP exercise worthwhile.

So what can we conclude from all of this? Firstly, commercial channels give the retention of viewers their highest priority, hence the occasional use of IPP’s and other forms of aggressive promotional techniques in order to show advertisers that the channel means business in terms of getting their viewers to watch their ads and programmes.

However it’s equally crucial that these channels don’t upset their clientele – i.e. their viewers as well as advertisers – so the more complaints the broadcasters receive on the subject of IPP’s, the greater the chance that this sort of thing won’t be used, or (in the case of the commercial channels) at least used with a much greater deal of restraint.

So if you ever feel like complaining the next time Channel Five lets an animated coin-tosser wreak havoc over the end of a film, don’t hold back in complaining otherwise it WILL happen again because the channel will naturally value commercial considerations above everything else.

(If you really want to blame someone or something, blame Ofcom for their “light touch” regulation.)

But of course that animated Graham Norton wasn’t broadcast on Channel Five, which finally leaves us with the issue of the BBC’s status as a public service broadcaster together with the much more pertinent (and topical) issue of how far the corporation can legitimately go in order to promote its programmes and services.

Given the BBC’s status as a pure public service broadcaster with no revenue obtained directly from advertising, the fact that anyone within the BBC could even contemplate using such an intrusive promotional technique in their flagship drama series is in itself highly worrying and a clear indication that all is not well within the corporation.

The BBC’s whole raison d’être is that it isn’t a commercial broadcaster, therefore any promotional activity should be conducted with a good degree of self-restraint, since a reasonable proportion of viewers are only willing to pay for a licence fee on the basis that they can routinely watch BBC programmes without promotional interruption.

If the BBC continues to use such intrusive promotional devices on a regular basis whilst still thinking that the overall promotional benefits are worthwhile, then more and more viewers may subconsciously begin to question the ultimate worth of the licence fee regardless of all the other good things that the BBC may do from time to time.

Certainly if this sort of thing had happened whilst Lord Reith was in charge of the BBC, the individuals responsible for such an action would most likely be summoned to the board for instant dismissal, but of course under those circumstances it would be much more likely that it wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

You would have thought that the BBC would now be much more self-aware of a requirement to avoid upsetting even a relatively small proportion of its licence fee-payers in any way, especially after all the recent scandals and bad publicity that has dogged the corporation in recent times (even if the BBC wasn’t directly responsible for some of them).

That recent fiasco surrounding the proposed axing of Radio 6 Music appears to be yet another symptom of the same problem; namely, a management structure that appears to be dangerously out of touch with certain aspects of what it really means to be a public service broadcaster.

If you upset too many groups of people on the basis that their opinions/requirements aren’t that important in your grand scheme of things, then there’s a resultant danger of seriously undermining public trust in the corporation as a whole along with a heightened risk of another major PR disaster at the hands of hostile tabloid newspapers.

And given the current volatile state of the media industry at a time when the BBC is coming under intense pressure to either reform itself or be forcibly reformed by government, the very last thing it needs to do is to undermine public trust in this manner.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Thursday 25 April 2024