Snails and Whales and audience loyalty

Carrying an audience until they can carry you

A sea snail: Our other hero (swoon..)

A humpback whale: Our hero

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.

There was once a sea-snail who dreamt of sailing away to see the world.  None of his fellow snails were interested, but he was clever enough to use his slimy trail to spell out a message on his rock seeking a ride.  A whale sees the trail, holds out his tail, and carried the snail on an astonishing adventure through storms to frozen wastes, exotic oceans and islands.  It’s a heady journey. The snail finds it a scary and exhilarating ride, but it leaves him feeling overwhelmed by the sheer bigness of it all.  He feels small. 

Then something goes wrong.  The whale is disoriented by the noise of speedboats and finds himself too close to shore as the tide is going out, leaving him beached. 

‘Come ON’ shouts the snail, ‘SWIM!’

‘I can’t, I’m too big’, the whale replies.

Then the desperate snail has an idea.  He crawls to a local school, and uses his trail to write a message on a blackboard, alerting the children to the emergency. They run out and with the local people keep the whale alive until the next tide floats them both away. 

They return to their bay, and tell the story of their trip and this time all the snails decide to set sail for an adventure…

And they sang to the see as they all set sail, On the tail of the grey-blue humpback whale’

A modern classic. And it all rhymes

Julia Donaldson: Powerful truths in lovely stories. (beautifully illustrated by Axel Scheffler)

Julia Donaldson is our Children’s Laureate, and this story, The Snail and the Whale, told rather more poetically in the original, is my favourite of the dozen she has written with illustrator Axel Scheffler.  The Gruffalo is better known, but The Snail and the Whale has the higher rank on Amazon (it is still ranked in the top 100 books, 8 years after publication. And, apart from the Highway Code, it has been there longer than any other book by a mile: 1341 days.  The next highest has managed 848…).

Nice, I get it, but what is it doing on a website about television?

The best television programmes are like the whale in the story, taking their audience on a journey.  It shows them things they’ve never seen before.  It can involve risk, but it’s best if it doesn’t compromise – a willing audience will trust it.

The programme may not feel big, but audience members think it is, and that they are small. The best television attracts the type of resourceful, inquisitive, and brave viewers who want to test themselves and experience something magical.  And if the programme loses its way – shark-jumping, creatively tired, gimmick-chasing – it needs the audience to help it out.  All TV programmes are vulnerable and there are times when they need help.

Audience members might feel small and helpless but they aren’t, for three reasons:

First, loyalty from resourceful viewers can keep a programme ticking over through the bad times.

Second, it it all goes a bit wrong, audience members can help steer a programme back where it belongs (or they can find someone else who can help).

Third, when a fan of a programme tells friends (and anyone else who will listen) how wonderful their programme, is can build an audience back up.

TV Programmes that have been sustained through tough times by audiences

Take University Challenge.  An obvious winning format that was damaged by poor scheduling and changes to the format (a relay involving batons… for goodness sake) until it returned on a more suitable channel in its original straightforward incarnation.  It doesn’t need a BIG audience because it has one that punches above its weight.

University Challenge: Old and improved, after losing its way

Later…with Jools Holland and Newsnight have survived years of small or shrinking audiences because they attract audiences who will fight for them (the same people who saved BBC 6 Music).  Later is more than a TV programme and now helps to sustain the BBC’s reputation as a culturally edgy corporation, as well as attracting audiences and investment worldwide. 

Top Gear benefited when it stopped seeing itself as a car review programme and became a guilt-free celebration of driving. Top Gear‘s current stunt and comedy mix may be the equivalent of allowing itself to become beached through distraction, and it will take car lovers to refloat it.

M.A.S.H may have concluded with the biggest audience in US television history, but its lowest audiences were the second, 4th and 6th of its eleven seasons as it experimented with different editorial teams, tonal shifts between comedy and drama, and cast changes. But the fundamental quality of the programme and its story kept audiences coming back.

Doctor Who has to regenerate itself every few years, and retained a fanatical following despite the moribund 1980s and 16 year hiatus, and has now found a self-sustaining model.

Family Guy, like University Challenge, coped with cancellation and years off-air before benefiting when it returned from consistent scheduling and a switch to a more suitable channel. The people who watched it really loved it.

Alan Partridge has, like its eponymous hero, struggled through down-sized outlets and the indignity (and usual kiss of death) of an online-only expression (Mid-Morning Matters sponsored by Fosters…).  He can now be seen on Sky Atlantic – which may not delight those members of his fan-base who do not receive the channel

Top of the Pops was cancelled in 2006 after more than 2000 episodes across 42 years. Its audience had drifted off, music tastes were less televisual and more fragmented, and talent shows were more fun. Fans of an early evening music programme are waiting for momentum to build, and for the economics and demographics to adjust, and a generation of parents is looking for an excuse to turn into their parents. In the meantime, TOTP2 ticks over, turning the original youthful weekly musical clips into an emotional journey for late-night nostalgics.

Some longer running programmes now float on a tide of foreign licensing deals, format rights and merchandise, as well as brand extensions in which the TV programme can be part of an array of manifestations (This Morning bedding anyone)?  A foreign deal can now be the cavalry saving a struggling programme from cancellation.

Encouraging snails

It has become a little easier for fans of a programme to mobilise.  Programmes now find it easier to return in another format somewhat further along the tail.  The exploitation of programme brands, and international licensing means that they can survive with smaller audiences.  Yadda yadda...

And as if by magic, we have gone from a charming story about a tiny animal saving the life of an enormous one into the grim business of 360 degree multi-platform, digital distribution, and cherished programmes morphed into ‘intellectual property’ and ‘software’.

Let’s think about the whale and the snail again.  The snail doesn’t save the whale by pushing it back into the water itself – it does so by finding others to help him until the whale recovers his composure. It’s an encouragement for snails to feel empowered (or audiences… do you see, the snail is representing the audiences).

And for whales (or programme makers, if you will)?  They should avoid taking the journey for granted or being fooled by their own size – hubris can leave you beached. They need to find resourceful audiences, with plenty of slime, and take them on the ride of their lives.


Here’s where you can help me: 

1.  Can you think of other TV programmes that have been saved by their audience? (apart from, you know, all of them) Send me a comment.

2.  If you’d like me to email you when I’ve written something, please use the info on the Contact page. 


A journey round the world

Bands with whale in their name are more common than those with snail.  Try this one

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