Through the arched window

Door or window… what is TV for?

Arched… got to be. Or perhaps the round one. Oh don’t make me choose!

Maggie Philbin’s name always brings out a warm nostalgia for the years when life was mostly ahead of me.  And her work on Tomorrow’s World was all about shepherding us towards the future while looking reassuringly like an older sister.  (In that respect she had a lot in common with Doctor Who’s sidekick Elisabeth Sladen). Philbin has been working on another technology project, Teentech, in which young people get to work on projects with companies which specialise in science, technology or engineering.

One day we will all look like Maggie

Television programmes are far more effective at inspiring people through example than by setting themselves up as educators (at least on mainstream channels). Even programmes such as Tomorrow’s World, or Click, which cover technology issues in a world becoming increasingly tech-centric – have failed to find a proper slot in primetime on a big channel.

In 1982, the BBC conducted research to help programming to improve computer literacy – The Computer Programme – at a time when computers were barely available in homes.  The project found an immediate problem.  How could you develop a single programme about computers when there were two distinct audiences, and each had discrete needs.  Do you develop the programme for people who might actually use a computer, or for the wider group people who might be interested in them.

Who mattered more?

A laptop from the 1960s. It took 7 people to carry it from room to room

A pilot was put together and, in the end they went for the wider group.  Why?  Because TV was a mass medium (and still is), and because:

Television is good at capturing people’s interest, story-telling, demystifying, showing practical examples. It is not nearly so good at straight explanation’

BBC Broadcasting Research Annual Review 1981/2 by Vivian Marles and John Radcliffe

Television was therefore designed to be a ‘gateway’ – it would aim to excite the audience with some simple truths:  that computers are ‘intrinsically fascinating’, that they would become very important, and that there were many opportunities to learn about it elsewhere, and where they could ask questions and have a go at using one.

The decision to go for a wide audience drove the content – presenters with attractively engaging personalities, ‘chatty and relaxed’.  No scary stuff to frighten technophobes (that is… almost everyone).  That’s why Maggie Philbin and not men in white coats were given presenting roles on science-based programmes.

This project was from the early days of research for developing programmes.  It took place only a few years since the 1977 Annan Report, which had led to the creation of a single survey to replace the expensive duplication of ITV and the BBC measuring their audiences separately.  The reward for less measurement was an expansion of research to develop content.   So some of this was break-through stuff, and still holds true today.  Thirty years on, in a world that has changed beyond measure by computers and the internet, the role of television remains as a ‘gateway’ or inspiration, rather than a practical tool.  It is at its best when it inspires audiences to explore the world themselves.  Some see television as a ‘window on the world’, and that is about right – when it tries to be a ‘door to new behaviour’, it finds that far harder on its own.

(and as a sidenote, Vivien Marles, the co-author of the 1982 BBC research has been working for many years in Sub-Saharan Africa and says that the revolution in TV provision happening there now is serving a similar role in opening up aspirations).

Television’s role as inspiration is not always easy to spot.  When looting happened in England in 2011, many said that a culture of consumerism and instant success, fostered by talent shows and celebrity culture, had created a laziness and selfishness among disadvantaged (and some advantaged) young people. But if television can create problems, what about good things?  Do The Apprentice, and Dragon’s Den encourage entrepreneurship?  Does Secret Millionaire encourage charity-giving?  Do cooking programmes really encourage good nutrition?

Research from viewers often points to the desire for practical information.   Research I conducted for gardening programmes found that people want practical tips for use in small gardens or window-boxes.  Little had changed in the decades since the 1989 BBC research for Gardeners’ World which asked for advice aimed at the non-expert, without big gardens and stately homes.  Viewers wanted to see the presenter actually digging and ‘to be prompted into action, be inspired by the programme’.  Programmes about clothes came with viewers beseeching us to feature normal clothes for normal people – we’ve seen plenty of those.  Cooking programmes come with demands from audiences for doable, quick, convenient, easy, straightforward, un-poncey meals.   It’s an unceasing desire for easy inspiration, akin to self-help books offering to transform your lives through the power of positive thinking delivered in a step-by-step guide.

So viewers day that they want everyday inspiration and practical how-to guides, but do they really?

Do we really need to see people digging to be inspired to start gardening? Perhaps

Just as we take viewers requests for challenging content with a pinch of salt it may be just as necessary to beware of viewers asking television to give them practical help.  Emails arrive regularly from Amazon, promoting the best-selling motivational books.  Six years after publication, and ranked among the best sellers is The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne – which argues that positive thinking will lead to positive outcomes.  This and other books which purport to increase happiness and well-being for their readers are part of a broad publishing trend for transformative books.  When TV audiences say that they want practical help, are they asking for an easy way to improve their lives?  Is that the role of television?  Is there a tension between inspiring and helping?

Programme makers should be cautious about this type of audience research.  Audiences often reward programmes which ignore all that.  Top Gear was transformed when it toned down the practical information about cars, and decided to celebrate driving and the excitement of speed that none of us ever achieve when we drive.  Masterchef and The Great British Bake Off wear their educational elements lightly – they are about celebrating gourmet food, the thrill of competition, and understated hero-worship towards the amateur chefs, not a step-by-step guide.  We enjoy looking at cars that no viewers will ever drive, and food that few viewers will ever eat, let alone create.

When I lived in India, we found that many viewers regarded programmes like Baywatch less as formulaic cheesy dramas, but as documentaries helping to widen their knowledge about life in America (or Australia, as some mistakenly thought).  In Russia I’ve heard viewers who distrust the BBC’s news output (especially when it covers Russia itself), nevertheless praising the BBC for its wildlife documentaries.  Is the BBC fostering a spirit of democracy and openness in the corrupt and cramped Russian news media? Well perhaps. But it certainly IS widening the eyes of ordinary Russians about the beauty of the natural world.

Our lives have been transformed during the past 30 years since The Computer Programme was developed.  But the role of television as a window to a different world is broadly unchanged.  What television now has is a partner to enable viewers to make some of the next steps more simple.  That’s the internet.  The TV gives you the thought and the motivation, and the internet helps you take some practical steps.

(And one point, while we’re at it: we use windows far more often and far longer than we use doors.  I’m not getting into all that ‘doors are better than windows’ nonsense’).

It’s a door and a window in one. A Windoor

If this article has inspired you to do some audience research, my contact details are elsewhere on the blog…


So I wrote all the above, and then I found a clip of The Computer Programme from 1982 (the sound isn’t great).  Sometimes the audience research can be a little better than the resulting programme…  Young people, check out the telephone

And then there’s this:

A reminder that it was Kennedy St King on entertainment programme O News who broke the news that John Lennon invented the Ipod, and not a specialist technology reporter

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