Testing, testing

Men (and women) in TV Behaving Scientifically? Up to a point

A journey back in time, to when rubbish Clipart was all we had.

If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist, they say. One of the peculiarities of television decision-making is how much of it is based on hunch.  An educated hunch, perhaps, but lacking a certain scientific rigour.

For instance do the +1 channels mean a larger total audience for the programmes?  Perhaps… hard to say.  How much bigger would the audience be at a different time?  Or on a different channel?

You’d think we’d know, because we can use BARB ratings to explore cannibalisation and repeat viewing effects through detailed audience flow analysis. But ratings data can’t help with the immensely subtle and hidden effects inside the heads and social dynamics of the audiences.

In a related industry, book publishers have been scrambling to hire market researchers to help them decide how to commission and price biographies.  Some autobiographies fly, and others flop… but now that Amazon has so much data and is no longer a bookseller but a publisher too, the traditional publishers risk being totally out-gunned by having to negotiate blind.

So what do we KNOW in TV about the impact of scheduling decisions.  A programme might be a hit, or not, but it’s not easy to find cast-iron examples of cause and effect beyond the content’s quality, so let’s take an example from the days when few people has satellite TV, time-shifting was rudimentary and the internet didn’t exist.

Men Behaving Badly, a programme close to my heart because my brother Simon wrote it (and it paid the deposit on my first house…).  It was unsuccessful on ITV and cancelled in 1992/3 after two series.

Harry Enfield in Men Behaving Badly, Series 1.
You didn’t (ahem…) want to do that


Something’s changed. Schedule, mood, content, channel, lead-in?

Rather remarkably, it then moved to BBC1, aired at a later time in the evening from 1994, and became an enormous hit. In 1997 and 1998 the Christmas episodes were among the biggest programmes of the year.


Why did the audience to Men Behaving Badly grow from series 3 onwards?

Some hypotheses:

  1. The programme improved.  Better writing, acting and all the rest.
  2. Word of mouth helped to promote it – a lag effect that took a while to kick in
  3. BBC1 was a more suitable channel – with a better reputation for comedies. Audiences who had ignored it on ITV gave it a go
  4. The zeitgeist had changed – lad culture, Loaded Magazine and Fantasy Football League all kicked off in 1994 after the second series. It rode this wave.
  5. The later time slot made more sense because it fitted the concept of behaving badly.  Audiences were more willing to try it out
  6. It was scheduled after Absolutely Fabulous, and the audience carried over.

Perhaps all six played a part.  Beryl Vertue, its Executive Producer, believes the last reason is most important.  Simon doesn’t know, but reckons they got better and has a theory that the 4th series of long-running programmes is often the best .

You’d think that we would know, but we don’t.  Not really.  Does all this matter now?  Well, word of mouth effects might be quicker than in the 1990s (and we can measure some of chatter that takes place online). Audience inheritance between scheduled programmes is FAR less pronounced now than in the 1990s.  Programme marketing is more valuable because of the abundance of content.  Channel brands seem as important as ever…

If anything it’s less clear than ever.  When overnights arrive, they are often a genuine surprise.  Which makes it all the more fun.


Disclaimer:  we may not be able to prove what is happening, but audience research can CERTAINLY HELP.  A LOT.  It’s important to make that clear


  1. Harry Enfield wasn’t funny and Martin Clunes was allowed to be more outrageous from S3 onwards. It was genuinely funnier.

    I have been looking for a lager mitt ever since.

    …And Lesley Ash

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