The eloquent brutality of the off-switch

Friedrich Hans Ulrich Mühe - the star of a remarkable film

Ulrich Mühe – the star of a remarkable film

Others, Lives of.  No no no.  Oh go on then.

Have you seen The Lives of Others?  It’s a terrific German film about the latter years of the East German government, in which Stasi agents and covert surveillance of radicals and political activists created an unsettling distrust. No-one could tell who was an agent of the authorities, and lives were ruined by the secrecy and suspicion among friends and family.

Germany has long since reunited, but we live in peculiar times and who knows who is listening to us and reading our stuff? (I could do with more traffic round these parts, to be honest, so if you are a government running dog, please tell your quisling friends…).

If I remember at the end of this post, I’ll tie this all together with an elaborate analogy comparing the Stasi with Facebook.

ANYWAY, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director of the Oscar winning film The Lives of Others explained at a conference I attended some years ago about the problems he faced with squeegee men at a particular junction.  While he was struggling to put together his film –  rejections every where and failure to secure the people he wanted at the budget he had available – he was driving across town each day.   He always seemed to hit the same red light, and they would ask to clean his windows.  He would say no, and each morning they would ignore his protestations and clean them anyway.  So he felt obliged to give them something for their pains.

Each morning he would rehearse the words of rejection to say to the cleaners, and each time they would carry on anyway.

Annoying though this was, he became even more perplexed when he saw that these persistent squeegee people would ignore other vehicles.

So he decided to watch the other drivers.  What was the trick to avoiding an unwelcome cleaning?  And he discovered that these drivers simply ignored the cleaners.  They behaved as if they weren’t there: the most eloquent put-down.

You don’t even bloody exist.

So he tried it himself, and they moved onto the next car.  He not only avoided the car-wipe, he also realised where he had been going wrong with his film.  He had been taking rejection at face value.  But now, if someone said that they were too busy to meet him, or to help with the film, he would ask them when they WERE free, and work around that.  So long as they replied, he had a dialogue – he could work around their response in a way that he couldn’t if they didn’t reply.

What has this to do with television audiences?

As I write, some twitter users are boycotting Twitter as a protest against the virulent nastiness of some users who have sent threats to high-profile women to rape them, murder them or blow them up.  You can see why a protest is overdue.  These are the most unpleasant tip of a nasty wedge.  You see it in comments below videos on Youtube, and below reasoned articles on newspaper columns… a knee-jerk negativity.  An impotent rage at what they’ve just watched or read, and a platform to express it. I don’t mean to over-characterise, because some comments are very funny, or add something of interest..  but in general it’s just horrid.  Nasty people saying horrible things, and more typically, nice people getting something off their chests.  An inclination to carp.

It’s no accident that my favourite blog doesn’t invite comments.

The negativity gives everything an unpleasant after taste.

With TV programmes, the audience may not have an easy way to express back how they feel to the people who made the show, but they can express themselves in a number of ways.

They can refuse to turn up in the first place.   That might be because they tried something like it before, or the timing wasn’t great.  Or, more likely, they were doing something else and were unaware.

Or, this is a good one, they can watch the start, and then switch off.  That, my friends, is harsh.

Or they can watch the thing, quite enjoy it, and then drift off next time. Audiences are amazingly fickle like this – and always have been.

It’s a brutal, powerful system.  No need to say anything, just end the experience with the tiniest twitch of a finger.

Low audiences mean cancellation.  It’s true that some shows have been persisted with through lean early years and become more popular later.  Others are cancelled too early and much-mourned. I worked at Channel 4 for a time and had to write a weekly ratings summary.  At one point we held a special animation season, with some fabulous cartoons – the sort that require months of pain-staking drawing to create a few minutes of stunning artistry.  But hardly anyone bothered to watch. Frankly, we’d have attracted more viewers with a test-card of Abi Titmuss holding a rugby ball.

Abi Titmuss holding a rugby ball.  I need the web traffic, I'm not going to deny it.

Abi Titmuss holding a rugby ball. I need the web traffic, I’m not going to deny it.


It’s not necessarily a perfect system – the switching off with no explanation – but in the end, it’s the best way for audiences to express what they think.  Or what they feel, if they feel anything, which they usually don’t.

It was argued recently that a Ben Elton sitcom had been killed off by negative comments on Twitter.  New BBC3 sitcoms are now being premiered on iPlayer before being given a showing on scheduled TV.  The calculation must be that VOD (video on demand) viewers – those happy few – will create some buzz and this will drag in mainstream viewers later.

But it reminds me of the other lesson from von Donnersmarck’s speech.

He was there to thank the market research industry, because when The Lives of Others had been completed, he kept failing to find a distributor.  The cinema-owners would go to the trouble of researching the film with test audiences, who kept giving it modest scores.  Then a more imaginative distributor showed it to a test audience who had been specially chosen because they were naturally inclined towards the type of bleak near-history that was typified by his film.  And they loved it, and it was rewarded with the launch platform it needed.  If you’re going to ask people their opinion of something you’ve created, it’s not enough that it be a good programme.  You need to ask the right people, and you need to ask when they are able to give a positive opinion – showcasing it in a lovely way, at a lovely time, seems to be a sensible way to do this.

That’s what TV does – it rolls out a red carpet, gathers a crowd, puts it on a big screen and gives it a chance to work.

If you ignore that, you’re like a squeegee gang, looking for an in.