The lightness of being big

Double jeopardy and the curse of being small

A giant balloon dog. Large, but light

It’s small and heavy. Like the audience to a niche TV programme

You may remember the rude joke:  What is the difference between ‘light’ and ‘hard’?

Answer:  You CAN fall asleep with a light on.

ha ha HA!  Never fades, that one…

What about big and light?  When it comes to TV programmes, can they be both at the same time?

Many years ago, while working at Channel 4, we held an away-day. Dawn Airey, who was running things at the time, had asked us to find out which programmes had a BIG audience, and which attracted an audience of LIGHT TV viewers.  Programmes which attracted EITHER a big crowd (because bills need to be paid), OR an audience of people who don’t watch much TV (that is, light viewers, in keeping with the channel’s remit) would be retained, but programmes with small audiences of people who watch a lot of TV would be AXED.

Or, you know, they’d have to beg to be kept on the schedule.

Which sounded fair enough until we found that Channel 4 News had a small audience and one that watched a lot of TV.  Oh dear.

A task when at Channel 4: Identify programmes attracting large audiences OR attracting viewers who don’t watch much TV

We were hardly going to dump the flagship news programme.

(Not based on data…). Big programmes ALSO fit the remit in being for light viewers.


Double jeopardy. Being big means audiences who are loyal, and light in their TV viewing

But we shouldn’t have been surprised. As Byron Sharp and colleagues have reminded us, people who don’t watch much TV tend to watch the popular programmes, and not the niche ones.  And it’s not only in TV. People who don’t buy cola, crisps, breakfast cereal or tomato ketchup very often, tend to buy the biggest brands – Coke, Walkers Crisps, Kellogs cereal or Heinz – when they do.

We have a sense that the person who likes to watch an obscure fishing programme on the Carp & Perch Channel will tend to be a light viewer of TV… that the obscurity of their selection reflects a rarefied taste.  Not so.

The idea that programmes attracting fewer viewers also attract viewers who are less loyal viewers and less complimentary about them – the idea of double jeopardy – has been known for nearly 50 years (and features in The Television Audience: Patterns of Viewing by Goodhardt, Ehrenberg (particularly) and Collins from the 1970s).

As Professor Sharp explains, in the more recent How Brands Grow:

‘There are some television programmes that are watched by hardly anyone compared to popular shows, and these tiny programmes have a viewing base substantially skewed to the heaviest of television  viewers (i.e people who watch almost anything’

It’s a real problem this.  We might think of popular programmes like Coronation Street, Downton Abbey and The Great British Bake-off attracting a mass audience.  But when it comes to TV viewing they watch LESS than the viewers who are going up the dial and watching something unusual on their own.  And that’s because the people who don’t do something very much, tend to go for a popular option.  And the popular options also tend to have more loyalty – people do them more often.

And the programmes that really grow are the ones that are available, and which fit people’s memory structures.  Sharp argues that brands need to work with existing consumer memories – d0n’t keep mucking around with the packaging and format.

What does this mean for TV?  Why not work with the time slots.  Since humans are creatures of habit, then using mnemonic devices such as scheduling a programme at a well-known, fixed time, perhaps with a name that reflects the airtime or day makes it ‘mentally available’.  It builds a defined space in the consumer’s brain.  It’s one reason why we embrace the world of time-shifting, and repeating, and +1ing and the whenever you want attitude at our peril

Double jeopardy… if you work for a smaller channel with an audience of people who watch a LOT of other channels, THAT should keep you awake at night.






  1. The best example of a ‘niche’ channel that claimed a small but loyal audience base is BBC World News in many of the markets it is in. At least in India that strategy was its undoing. I am not saying that it could have done more with the little room ( and inclination) for content localization. The problem was the marketing belief and action of trying to preserve a small fan-boy audience base. I wish I had read Webster, Ehrenberg etc back then!

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