You can take a horse to TV, but you can’t make us all watch

Penguins and dogs and TV programmes and that

Riddle:  Brian says that Downton Abbey is a horse, and Doris says it’s a dog.  But which one actually watches the programme?

Yes! It’s Downton Abbey, if it was an animal. Could be either the dog or the horse, but which would YOU choose?

Sometimes it is hard to put things into words.  Our brains are ill-suited to explaining why we like certain things.  Or why we feel uneasy about them, for that matter. So market researchers have come up with a range of ‘projective techniques’ to help unlock the deeper feelings… to articulate the subtleties.

So in a focus group, they’ll say, imagine that you went to a party in Tescoville.  What would it be like?  And a literal minded person might say ‘Well, the food would be unexciting but cheap. And the wallpaper would be blue and stripy’.  Another, more helpfully, might say ‘Well, it would be a bit loud, and I’d be plunged into silence by the depressed faces of all the people there. But the host would seem to know exactly what I wanted to drink’.

Some years ago, when working in Asia, I was asked to find out why our English language, family entertainment channel, Star Plus was doing so poorly in India.  People seemed to love it, but the audience figures were terrible. What was going on?  So we asked people, and they were complimentary.  Then we said, OK, imagine Star Plus is an animal, what would it be.  So they said, oh,… a tiger.  An elephant.  Or a Lion.  These animals may seem exciting and impressive, but it helped us to understand the problem.

This was a channel aimed at families – we would expect it to be a cat, say, or a dog; something friendly and unthreatening.  When we probed further we found that programmes like The Simpsons threatened cherished Indian values such as respect for parents. Baywatch too, and the soaps – this was not family friendly material for India – where grandparents often live in the same household.  The people we spoke to might have been unwilling to admit that the content was a little too edgy, but the animal method helped to unlock their feelings.  Suddenly the idea that we could attract big audiences for this channel in its current form seemed hopeless.  (The channel was later converted into Hindi and became the biggest cable channel in India for years).
One viewer we spoke to pointed out the other problem eloquently. Asked which animal was most like Star Plus, she replied ‘a penguin’.

Yes, cute. But would you want one in your house?

How interesting, we thought.  What did she have in mind?  A fun animal? Looks good in black and white?  An interesting hybrid – a bird that can swim…?  What did penguin mean?  She explained.  ‘Everyone loves penguins.  Who wouldn’t be charmed by such a creature?  But nobody in India ever sees them’. 

This helped us understand not only why the channel wasn’t popular, but why people said it was.  Penguins are lovely, but at a distance. In fact, their appeal seems to grow the further away you are.  You don’t attract viewing by being respected, or being name-checked by newspaper columnists.  It might make you feel proud to associate yourself with it, but that doesn’t make you watch.  From then on ‘penguin’ has been my personal shorthand for a TV programme or channel which has a high profile, but tiny audiences.  Sky Atlantic seems to be currently playing that role in the UK.  ‘Watching television on a computer‘. That’s another one.  It happens, but not very often.

So, Downton Abbey.  At ITV, we asked viewers which animal came to mind when they thought about the programme.  People who watched it were most likely to say it was a dog.  Friendly, warm, dependable, classless (and there’s a dog in the cast too, which might have helped).  People who didn’t watch were more likely to say that Downton Abbey was a horse.  You can see this.  Horses are magnificent, but with a touch of danger about them. Aristocratic and a little old-fashioned.  Rural, or at least outdoorsy.  At times a means of social control.

Our feelings about horses might be complex, but horses do seem to be the very opposite of the type of animal you’d associate with ITV.  Part of the success of Downton Abbey has been in widening our sense of what ITV is all about.  It may be more horsey than it was, but it must never aspire to become a penguin.

Anyway, with Great Britain finally winning Olympic gold on horses, horses may be becoming more modern and universal.

OK… imagine Tesco was an animal…


Did you enjoy My Bloody Valentine, but now you worry about going deaf?  Try Swedish duo I Break Horses.  They were very good at Latitude


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