A Little Revolution in TV

Making a direct connection

The cast of Little Revolutions on location

A Little Revolution in… I think Wood Green, might be Tottenham

One reason to Give Directly

One reason to Give Directly

A home in Solihull. Full of potential, according to Adliterate

A home in Solihull. Full of potential


Going, going... ?

Going, going… ?










Do you remember the TV programme Connections?  Presented by James Burke, this blend of history and science showed how events in different epochs are linked through a series of leaps and non-linear progressions.  While we love to spot causal relationships in what are actually mere coincidences, the world is full of the opposite: dependencies that are invisible.

And suddenly there are connections everywhere I look… take these four.

1. Scottish nationalism. the vote is 10 days away.   We don’t yet know if Scotland will leave the United Kingdom, but one motivation from the Yes campaign has been that while the UK calls itself ‘united’, Scotland feels itself dependent on London. And too often subjected to control and political leadership that it doesn’t respect. They feel ignored and want out.

2. Alecky Blythe’s new play Little Revolution has opened. Her last play, London Road was my favourite theatrical experience (saw it four times and wrote about it here). Like London Road, Little Revolution features the voices of real people recorded directly by the playwright and spoken by actors with all the original verbal tics and inarticulations.  They give themselves away: ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to stitch you up…’ as Alecky explains.  The verbatim nature makes the whole experience more authentic, and yet sounds oddly unnatural in a theatre.

3. Tim Harford’s radio programme More or Less looked at charity giving.  Its conclusion – if you want to make the biggest impact on the largest number, don’t give to motor neuron disease (it costs $200,000 to help a sufferer for a year) when for the same money you can transform the lives of thousands of poor children. More than that, if you donate to Give Directly, the money will go straight to the recipients, unmediated by layers of charity administration

4. I re-read this blog post by Saatchi’s adman Richard Huntington. He argues that advertising planners are no longer meeting consumers, relying too much on quantitative data or their innate creativity.  Instead of catching the afternoon train to Solihull to meet real people, they are reading Twitter, talking with colleagues or reading pieces of market research outsourced to others.  This isn’t about charity or democracy, it’s about understanding the market you are trying to serve

That’s politics and identity, theatre and authenticity, charity giving and impact, and advertising and creativity, but they are closely connected, with intriguing overlaps.

Connections connecting


What has all this to do with television audiences?

These different voices are touching something of fundamental importance to television.

It’s probably obvious, but has to be said – the broadcast industry in the UK generally rarely makes direct contact with its audiences in their location, instead attempting to do it all in London, or mediated through layers of in-house and external research teams.

This isn’t just about attending focus groups, it’s about trying to narrow the growing gap between people who love to watch television programmes and the people who make them. If anything the people who watch the most TV and who need listening to the most, are the ones we spend the least time with, and when we do, it’s at arms length – getting others to spend the time and then reading their summation.

I’ve seen a lot of insightful research which has broken all the suggestions here – unrepresentative viewers, in artificial settings, summarised into Powerpoint – but still provided terrific guidance.   But most of the time we risk playing a game of  Chinese Whispers in which viewers at one end of the line are saying ‘what on earth is this programme trying to tell me‘, but being heard at HQ saying ‘personalise the messaging for extravagant diphthongs‘.

Or whatever.

I’ve forgotten nearly everything I’ve seen in focus groups but will never forget the time I visited a flat in Novosibirsk, Siberia, or a modest home in Accra and found out how a Russian and a Ghanaian really lived.  Gogglebox is a terrific programme, but should not be seen as a substitute for engaging with audience members.

Huntington’s cri de coeur for advertising planners applies equally (or even more) to the people making, commissioning, marketing, strategising and scheduling television programmes, and the teams researching and data mining the audiences.

[Qualitative research] provides the equivalent of a fibre optic broadband link driving insight and understanding right into the heart of the [organisation] from planners that have far more power internally and respect externally because they have the ‘data’ at their finger tips and on the tip of their tongue.

[Television people] must, I repeat must get out there and be with people. They need to stop fiddling with their social listening tools (powerful though they are) and properly listen to the people that they want to understand and ultimately influence – both on their terms and in more formal research settings. Ladies and gentlemen the 4.55pm to Manchester beckons.

 We need a little revolution in how TV people engage with viewers, otherwise, like the good people of Scotland (and the bad ones too), they’ll realise they’re being ignored and sever the connection from their end.