Growing smarter with The Apprentice and Pointless

You’re Fired Up

This programme makes you smarter

The Apprentice: This programme makes you smarter

... and so does this one

… and so does this one


One mustn’t be hurt by the things people say.

But they can sting.

So those of us who love television programmes should ignore the snobbish comments of the Guardian contributor Stephen Moss. After bemoaning the retreat of chess from a mainstream hobby to the fringes, he turns his attention to TV, quoting Charles Dance’s recent complaint about there being nothing to watch, and then joins in:

The Apprentice, Flog It!, Strictly Come Dancing – It Takes Two, The Secret Life of Pets, Pointless.  All truly pointless and, as Dance says, an insult to the intelligence of the viewing public

Well, excuse my French, but how fucking offensive is that.

As it happens, The Apprentice and Pointless are two of my favourite programmes.

Pointless lacks pointlessness

My love of Pointless is multi-layered [the contestants, the humour, the presenters, the … everything], but one reason is that it has redefined the entire quizzing genre and what it means to be intelligent.

If you haven’t watched, the quiz might ask contestants to [picking a question at random] name a capital city that is closer to the North Pole than London is.  It is easy to pick a correct answer, but to win you need to provide one that the fewest members of the general public were able to give.  A simple question*, but it engages the whole brain.

By rewarding little known things, it introduces scarcity into a quiz format that usually relies on shared knowledge or factoids. Pointless isn’t about binary definitions of facts being correct or not correct.  University Challenge and Only Connect are wonderfully intelligent quizzes, but they seem to reward the same sort of cognitive process.  They are individualised – do I know this?

Pointless 1014 2With Pointless we are testing ourselves, and then benchmarking our knowledge: do I know this, and do others?

Take a look at the diagram. Most quizzes want a correct answer – just get onto the top half. Pointless goes further, and then has a continuum – so the further to the right you go the better the answer.

We really need the banter from Xander Armstrong and Richard Osman to rebalance our heads from what is cognitively hard work.

The Apprentice sharpens our skills

As for The Apprentice… Steven Johnson, in Everything Bad is Good for You explained how this programme is not only smart, but is a contributing factor in raising the intelligence of the public. We know from standardised tests over a long period that the public is getting more intelligent, and Johnson points out that this couldn’t be caused statistically by a smarter intelligentsia such as Moss’s beloved chess players, but by mainstream people wising up.

When millions of people watch The Apprentice, do you know what they do?  They think about it and talk about it with others:

The level of cognitive engagement, the eagerness to evaluate the show through the lens of personal experience and wisdom, the tight focus on the contestants’ motives and character flaws – all this is remarkable. It’s impossible to imagine even the highbrow shows of yesteryear [one things of Charles Dance’s Jewel in the Crown] inspiring this quantity and quality of analysis.  The unique cocktail that the reality genre serves up – real people, evolving rule systems, and emotional intimacy – prods the mind into action. You don’t zone out in front of shows like The Apprentice. You play along.

Johnson explains that this full-on engagement is not only about the content – which might be shallow or contrived – but:

‘the cognitive work the show elicits from your mind…from the sheer number of characters involved…the shifting feuds and alliances between more than a dozen individuals.  This activates a component of our emotional IQ: our ability to monitor and recall many distinct vectors of interaction in the population around us’.

This week we had two episodes with 20 personalities, three people evaluating them… Alan Sugar may be firing one, but we are doing the same thing, as well as judging them (then changing our minds), watching their interactions, joining in.  It’s chuffing brilliant.

Far from being an insult to our intelligence, the success of these two supreme programmes rests on giving our brains a work out.  Precisely like playing chess, but more fun along the way.  As Johnson explains, just as the effort to memorise London streets  and their connections changes the brains of London cabbies, The Apprentice and Pointless are changing, growing, the viewers intelligence.  You’d think someone who liked chess would understand this.

* I seem to remember that only 14 capital cities (out of 200+) are more northerly than London is.  It’s seriously North.

TV is from Mars, Youtubers are from Capricorn

Hello Guys! Welcome back!

One hears that people are giving up watching Television in favour of watching Youtube.  Admittedly one hears this most often from people who actually work for Google/Youtube, or from parents of teenage children, but the audience figures for some of the most successful vloggers (dubbed Youtubers) are impressive, and young people may be watching an inch or two less TV these days.

When you look at the output from Youtubers, you can imagine how many TV executives must feel.  An easy on the eye 21 year-old and a camera can apparently rack up a million views by talking about their day for a budget of zero, while a lovingly crafted and expensive TV programme using the finest talents can get half as many.

It’s worth spending half an hour looking at some of the Youtube output, to get a sense of what we are talking about:

Try these for starters:

Alfie Deyes talks about things for 6 minutes.  More than ‘900,000 views’

Piediepie comments as he plays a computer game. ‘8 million views’

California teenager Bethany Mota talks about things she loves. More than 2 million ‘views’.

Jim Chapman makes a cheesecake. Around half a million ‘plays’.

These are less ‘programmes’, than just hanging out, and trying to apply television standards simply doesn’t work.  Comparing a television programme to these clips would be akin to comparing astronomy to astrology or scientifically proven medication to homeopathy.

Which sounds more snobbish than is intended, but the analogy fits.

Because while we know that homeopathy has the appearance of science but ignores all of its precepts (and doesn’t work), and that astrology involves the stars but has nothing to do with astronomy, they both provide something.  Homeopathy is effective at one level (like placebos) because the human contact between practitioner and patient is real.  An hour of being careful listened to and taken seriously is genuinely pleasurable, and pleasure can help us cope with pain.

Astrology provides none of the clairvoyance or personality determinism it claims, but provides a daily laugh or a sense of a higher guiding power for its adherents.

Youtubers create an illusion of a relationship with their audience – they are your mates (‘Hello best friends‘ as Jim likes to say), or gently aspirational (the person at school you wish you were).

There’s nothing wrong with this – we all have affiliations with celebrities or politicians.  Second, their success rests on the self-confidence of the participants. Creative people and scientists often lack self-confidence (sample error..statistical insignificance...) in a way that Youtubers do not or keep to themselves.

Since television versus Youtube isn’t as clear as science versus charlatanism because we’re not saving lives, we wouldn’t want to push it too far, besides they can learn from each other.

Bridging the gap between TV and Youtube

Scientists and astronomers might be appalled by the popularity of their untrained competitors, and should avoid, at all costs, trying to copy their conclusions.  But they might all learn from their relationship with their audience.

So, how can the medical profession provide the human warmth of homeopaths.  Can rocket scientists turn their knowledge into stories that helps us make sense of our lives?

And when you look at the Youtubers’ output, and compare it with TV, it’s worth remembering three things:

First, the point that Will Self makes about humour:

Humour, to be worthy of the ascription should be spontaneous, playful and inventive. Some of the funniest times in my life have occurred when a small group of friends, over an evening or even a few days, have generated a dialect of comedic and satiric references known only to us. Such in-jokes are often derided – but the truth is that jokes are usually funny in inverse proportion to their universality, because the more widely understood humour is, the more likely it is to have been previously disseminated.

These videos may lack something, but they don’t lack spontaneity or the in-jokes that work at the time with people you like.

Second, we have learned recently about how lonely people are.  Teenagers, the elderly, the unexpectedly or persistently single… all isolated.  It’s a miserable way to live.  We know that a desire to Connect is a core human need state.  Youtube is all about connection.  It’s what Indians like to call a timepass too, but connection covers our innate desire to feel part of a group.

I love television because it is universal and appeals to me in a hundred ways, but if I was feeling rootless and wanted to hang out with like-minded people, I’d watch any old nonsense that cheered me up.  Where are the versions of the above performers for adults?

Third, while these clips can gather views on The Great Monopoly website, that doesn’t mean that they are intrinsically high quality, in the sense we understand from the dramatic or journalistic tradition. They may not speak to our soul, or deeper emotional or intellectual needs.   And it remains unclear whether the effectiveness of television as an advertising medium (based the in-room social dynamic, emotional potency, wide palette of needstate satisfaction and low attention mental processing), applies as well to the more individualised small-screen viewing typical of Youtube consumption.

More next time…

24 Hours in Police Custody: 100% Brilliant

Let’s be careful in here

Unpicking what makes a great TV programme doesn’t spoil it, it reveals the genius at work.  So let’s have a look at a recent example.

By some miracle (and patient negotiating, one assumes), we have been given access to a police station and to interviews conducted during the investigation of an attempted murder.  This was a brave decision given how these things sometimes work out, and we might have expected deadening self-consciousness from the police coupled with taciturn prisoners.  But whoever allowed the cameras in deserves our thanks because a brilliant TV programme has been created.

Standoff in Luton

Luton Stand-off: Malik, Baig, Hart


It starts at dawn with a slow-moving convoy and walkie-talkies, like a tense American drama about a President, but turns out to be a routine morning arrest in Luton. And by the time it finishes, we’ve watched a classic documentary.

24 Hours in Police Custody starts with two key advantages: First, it is made by the people behind 24 Hours in A&E so you know it will be about tiny details and bigger truths from people coping with stress.

And second, it is centred on the clock, the need to gather convincing evidence to charge suspects within a 24 hour period.  This frames the story.

Three Characters

In this first episode we met three characters properly: the accused, protected by his lawyer, and a police officer.  The episode was a contest between the first two and the last.

1. The police interviewer, DC Martin Hart

Imagine if David Brent was an underrated but absolutely shit-hot paper salesman.  And then add in an attempted murder.

2. The man accused of the crime, Mahboob Baig.

A silent giant; ‘e’s massive inny’ said one, though amusingly photographed at one point on the world’s smallest chair, he grew increasingly tense. Since he offered ‘No Comment’ to every question, he remained an enigma, and to the viewers throughout the process a guilty one.

3. The accused’s lawyer, Attiq Malik.

He started small, and unlike his client who had shrunk by half at the end, grew through the programme.

There were also some intriguing minor characters, including:

A friendly but firm custody sergeant, whose briefing to the next shift was like an internally focussed version of Sgt Phil Esterhaus’s daily warning in Hill Street Blues ‘Let’s be careful out there’.

Hart’s sidekick (with a hint of Gareth from The Office too) who illustrates the danger of allowing the cameras in.

An arresting officer who looked like a Labour Party strategist (or, ok.. Peter Hyman) and who delivered the final verdict to us (with a tiny upward inflection of the eyebrow).

Three Adverts

The themes in the programme were foreshadowed by adverts during the programme which appealed to our visual senses and intuition:

A Welsh woman from Barclays Life Skills tells us that looking directly at someone – at their eyes – can make all the difference in a job interview: ‘it’s a game-changer‘.

A promotion for the film Gone Girl, a story which takes readers on a journey with unreliable witnesses and subverted realities – are people who we think they are?

This advert works very well in this programme...

This advert works very well in this programme…

Gerard Butler pitched us a Hugo Boss fragrance for men:  Boss Bottled.   ‘Diligence and dedication is what I live from day to day’.  The phrase ‘Boss: Bottled’ summarises the themes: leadership, criminality (?), concentration, and self-restraint.

If this episode was a contest of masculinity, the answer to the unstated question ‘Who’s the Boss’ was… all of the three main characters.  But most of all, the lawyer.

One carefully structured programme, working at multiple levels

TV programmes are becoming smarter and more nuanced. The triumph of this programme rests on six key elements:

1. Careful disclosure.   During the custody and interview process the police reveal what they know slowly.  That way, the accused may commit himself to a position early and endanger his defence.  Similarly, the programme makers disclosed information bit by bit to the viewer.  It was fully 40 minutes before we learned about the crime and victim.

2. Rich content.  Every second was working hard to tell a story that was riveting and weighty. And real.  They made the most of the linear chronological structure (24 hours…) but mixed the tone and camera styles and inter-cut the interviews to keep us all focused, and thinking things through.  80 minutes, but never a dull moment.

3. Structure. We don’t know what will happen next but we understand where we are: in a police station, working through a day.  Sounds dull, but it’s important, this.  Viewers can cope with uncertainly as long as they know where they are structurally.

4. Special access.  We’re watching a man fighting for his freedom and family.  In a police cell.  If it wasn’t for the ‘diligence and dedication’ of the production company, this would have never happened.  Most of all, the fixed-rig cameras give us close-up access to their faces and body-language, as it happened.  When the participants look at us directly in the interviews filmed later it brings them alive.  We trust them. As the Barclays advert told us, it’s a game-changer.

In the case of the accused, this only happens at the very end and we learn that in court, Baig had addressed the jury directly (he was always engaging with the jury.. he looked like a man that believed he’d been wronged).

5. Subversion. We like surprises and ambigiuity.  Is Hart an over-promoted red-coat, or a brilliant detective? Baig is silent, but constantly communicating. Is he a potential killer or a family man? Is he slim, or not?

Attiq’s position looks weak, but he’s smarter than we think.  It’s Gone Girl, in a Luton police cell. If the programme started with police vehicles at dawn, it ends with the lawyer’s smoothly sun-dappled Audi and personalised number plate R999 LAW.

6. And finally an ending that was unexpected…  unsettling too, but strangely satisfying.  It completed the story but our thoughts carried on: it immediately made me re-spool through the entire story.

Line of Duty, and Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line were wonderful stories about the police investigating a shooting.  The highest praise you can give this episode of 24 Hours in Police Custody was that it was just as good.

Two by two by two by two

Only Connect: Step this way, into the Matrix

My name is Jeremy , and I have an addiction to 2 x 2 matrices.

We hear about curious phobias but fetishes are far more fun, and mine is a pleasurable frisson when I see two buildings which are separated but have a relationship.  Imagine two McDonalds on opposite sides of a road, or two garages across a highway.  I like to imagine the staff from one building popping over to the other for more supplies via a connecting tunnel or by nipping over the road.

Dwell on this scenario for too long and I’d morph into a lascivious perv, like Vic Reeves rubbing his thighs in Shooting Stars.

This fetish can enliven an otherwise dull motorway journey (and is entirely benign, let me emphasise this), and I would keep it to myself except for one reason: my love of 2×2 matrices and their essential majesty stems from the same source. And I’d like you to join my circle of 2×2 love.

We’ll apply the matrix to a TV programme (*I’m starting to feel warm*)

First, what exactly am I talking about here?

This graphical device involves mapping a population or group of entities across two intersecting dimensions, and the four quartiles that they create. So the ones on one side of the vertical axis have something in common with each other, but are divided by the horizontal axis, like separate but connected buildings.  It’s a deceptively simple format, and creates 4 pairs of relationships. And even the diagonals have something going for them.  It’s bloody beautiful.

Obviously we all like these 2 x 2 things, they’re very popular, but I want to be clear here: you may like them, but I’d like one tattooed onto my chest, like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, or Harry Styles’ butterfly.

A segmentation that helps

Look at this matrix (by James Heskett and others) which shows how customers segment, based on how much they like a company’s products and how loyal they are.  I’ve drawn it by hand, because these things lend themselves to back of the envelope renderings.

Map reduxSo simple, but so clever. If you are a marketer, a hostage feels compelled to buy your product but doesn’t derive any particular pleasure from it – it’s enforced loyalty. A mercenary enjoys what you do but would jump ship to your competitors without so much as a by your leave: it’s a temporary arrangement that suits them at the moment.

The Apostles like you and feel loyal to what you are selling. Their opposite… the defectors are customers who feel no loyalty or feelings either way (I said ‘dislike’ in the drawing – that may be over-stating it).  In recent years we’ve been encouraged to think of customers as apostles (the fans and followers of social media myth) but seeing how their relationship to your company is akin to a mercenary or hostage brings your wider market to life and suggests appropriate marketing strategies.

The fact is, your fans (apostles) are just one of four important consumer segments. They all matter.  It’s a vital truth, (confirmed by marketing scientists such as the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, and the IPA, and by creative people such as Martin Weigel) but is often ignored.  Isn’t it more fun to think of consumers as mercenaries and hostages than as desperate fans?

A simple chart but so helpful. Look at what each pair has in common, and what keeps them apart.  And it’s fluid…. people move from one to the other (and people not covered by the segmentation – non-users – may suddenly arrive, in any quadrant).

TV viewers are like this.

They may feel compelled by their friends or housemates to watch programmes they don’t much like, or they love a programme one week but don’t bother to watch the next episode…  or they aren’t loyal and don’t like it either but still watch (yes, really. Follow the hashtag #Xfactor on Saturday evening..)

Family Structure: a matrix that doesn’t work

What about this matrix describing a nuclear family?  It’s balanced, with axes based on gender and parent or child, but it’s hopeless: failing to describe most families (parents with two sons/daughters, or only one child, single parents households, transgender etc etc).  More important, the relationships on the diagonals are as important as any others and the whole matters more than the demarcations.

We’ll come back to this later.

David McCandless, watch out, there's a new visualisation sheriff in town

David McCandless, watch out, there’s a new visualisation sheriff in town


A simple map to understand TV audiences

What has this got to do with TV audiences?  Consider this graphic.


Two-part drama reduxWe often talk about ‘viewers of a programme‘.  And there are the people who didn’t watch it: non-viewers.  But viewers come and go.  Even for a two-part programme with similar numbers of viewers to each part (e.g. James Rhodes’ excellent but under-viewed Don’t Stop the Music) only half the viewers to the first episode will watch the second one, and half won’t.  So of the total crowd of viewers, only a third (or fewer) would watch both episodes. It feels very few (in fact for at least a week this blog said it was 50%).

The relationship between the lapsed and late viewers is curious is it not.  Both are happy to watch part of a programme, but they are behaviourally quite different – two halves of a tag-team.  The map illustrates their relationship – it challenges our preconception about loyalty – which is a rare commodity and too much to expect for most viewers.


Mapping strategies for particular programmes and timeslot: Only Connect

Programme strategy 0914That first matrix about customers applies very well to TV.  Every TV programme has apostles among its viewers, but most will fit the other segments and that cannot be changed.  That’s just how we are – indifferent, or driven by contextual or social factors.

It’s 8.30 on Monday night and Only Connect is on

Only Connect, a quiz built on finding connections between four things…

Imagine the fictional (but for the purposes of our example helpful), family described in the earlier matrix.

The dad (apostle) is a loyal viewer to Only Connect because he fancies Victoria Coren (join the queue…) and makes a point to watch each week.

His wife (mercenary) enjoys getting the questions right and if it’s on anyway

The children like to hang out in the living room – the daughter (defector) is doing homework in the corner and not paying much attention.

The son (hostage) would rather watch Gadget Man on Channel 4 which is on at the same time, but by remaining in the room and putting up with Only Connect (and there’s something about the host that he can’t yet articulate…) he can negotiate watching Gadget Man on catch-up straight after on the DTR…  At which point each family member switches into a different segment, and again with Celebrity Juice a little later.

Programme marketers and television executives can live with this indifference and lack of loyalty, or they can try to migrate viewers towards the sunlit uplands in the top right quadrant.

To move the bottom two segments (who aren’t fussed about the programme) UP into the upper quadrants, you have to improve the programme or sell it more effectively.  This might mean investing in the show to create more appreciation among the hostages (right-hand side) or by marketing it more effectively to boost its prominence in the heads of the defectors (left-hand).

To create loyalty where little exists (that is, moving viewers from the left side to the right), you have to find out what need state the programme can offer and focus on delivering that.  Behavioural science has taught us about the power of habit so if they already watch without being loyal then you can try to create a learned behaviour through sympathetic scheduling.  This will differ whether it’s a nightly news programme or a weekly drama, but creating the sense of an event at a particular time might help. The BBC is doing all of these things very effectively with Only Connect.

Promoting video on demand (watch when you like…) might suit some apostles, but can undermine this sense of the live occasion and risk converting hostages into defectors, and apostles into mercenaries, which is the opposite of what we want (see me for more ideas on this).  You need only imagine the disastrous effect on viewing to Only Connect in the family described above of encouraging the father to indulge his passion for Victoria Coren on a laptop on his own – he would be the only one of the four watching.


Goodness this is all very exciting… can you feel it, the 2 x 2 love?  I’m feeling it.

If this excursion into the 2 x 2 matrix has interested you, contact me and we can talk about it in adjacent motorway service stations. 

I’d love that.



*(Yes, I hear you say, what about Venn diagrams.  They are altogether less angular and more bosomy, but no no NO.  They’re nice enough, but they’re fascist – all about favouring the ones in the cross-over (the in-crowd) and excluding the ones outside.  2×2 matrices may look a little like swastikas but they don’t carry this illiberal tone).

OK, you want to see a more beautiful graphic?  Try this book:

A Little Revolution in TV

Making a direct connection

The cast of Little Revolutions on location

A Little Revolution in… I think Wood Green, might be Tottenham

One reason to Give Directly

One reason to Give Directly

A home in Solihull. Full of potential, according to Adliterate

A home in Solihull. Full of potential


Going, going... ?

Going, going… ?










Do you remember the TV programme Connections?  Presented by James Burke, this blend of history and science showed how events in different epochs are linked through a series of leaps and non-linear progressions.  While we love to spot causal relationships in what are actually mere coincidences, the world is full of the opposite: dependencies that are invisible.

And suddenly there are connections everywhere I look… take these four.

1. Scottish nationalism. the vote is 10 days away.   We don’t yet know if Scotland will leave the United Kingdom, but one motivation from the Yes campaign has been that while the UK calls itself ‘united’, Scotland feels itself dependent on London. And too often subjected to control and political leadership that it doesn’t respect. They feel ignored and want out.

2. Alecky Blythe’s new play Little Revolution has opened. Her last play, London Road was my favourite theatrical experience (saw it four times and wrote about it here). Like London Road, Little Revolution features the voices of real people recorded directly by the playwright and spoken by actors with all the original verbal tics and inarticulations.  They give themselves away: ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to stitch you up…’ as Alecky explains.  The verbatim nature makes the whole experience more authentic, and yet sounds oddly unnatural in a theatre.

3. Tim Harford’s radio programme More or Less looked at charity giving.  Its conclusion – if you want to make the biggest impact on the largest number, don’t give to motor neuron disease (it costs $200,000 to help a sufferer for a year) when for the same money you can transform the lives of thousands of poor children. More than that, if you donate to Give Directly, the money will go straight to the recipients, unmediated by layers of charity administration

4. I re-read this blog post by Saatchi’s adman Richard Huntington. He argues that advertising planners are no longer meeting consumers, relying too much on quantitative data or their innate creativity.  Instead of catching the afternoon train to Solihull to meet real people, they are reading Twitter, talking with colleagues or reading pieces of market research outsourced to others.  This isn’t about charity or democracy, it’s about understanding the market you are trying to serve

That’s politics and identity, theatre and authenticity, charity giving and impact, and advertising and creativity, but they are closely connected, with intriguing overlaps.

Connections connecting


What has all this to do with television audiences?

These different voices are touching something of fundamental importance to television.

It’s probably obvious, but has to be said – the broadcast industry in the UK generally rarely makes direct contact with its audiences in their location, instead attempting to do it all in London, or mediated through layers of in-house and external research teams.

This isn’t just about attending focus groups, it’s about trying to narrow the growing gap between people who love to watch television programmes and the people who make them. If anything the people who watch the most TV and who need listening to the most, are the ones we spend the least time with, and when we do, it’s at arms length – getting others to spend the time and then reading their summation.

I’ve seen a lot of insightful research which has broken all the suggestions here – unrepresentative viewers, in artificial settings, summarised into Powerpoint – but still provided terrific guidance.   But most of the time we risk playing a game of  Chinese Whispers in which viewers at one end of the line are saying ‘what on earth is this programme trying to tell me‘, but being heard at HQ saying ‘personalise the messaging for extravagant diphthongs‘.

Or whatever.

I’ve forgotten nearly everything I’ve seen in focus groups but will never forget the time I visited a flat in Novosibirsk, Siberia, or a modest home in Accra and found out how a Russian and a Ghanaian really lived.  Gogglebox is a terrific programme, but should not be seen as a substitute for engaging with audience members.

Huntington’s cri de coeur for advertising planners applies equally (or even more) to the people making, commissioning, marketing, strategising and scheduling television programmes, and the teams researching and data mining the audiences.

[Qualitative research] provides the equivalent of a fibre optic broadband link driving insight and understanding right into the heart of the [organisation] from planners that have far more power internally and respect externally because they have the ‘data’ at their finger tips and on the tip of their tongue.

[Television people] must, I repeat must get out there and be with people. They need to stop fiddling with their social listening tools (powerful though they are) and properly listen to the people that they want to understand and ultimately influence – both on their terms and in more formal research settings. Ladies and gentlemen the 4.55pm to Manchester beckons.

 We need a little revolution in how TV people engage with viewers, otherwise, like the good people of Scotland (and the bad ones too), they’ll realise they’re being ignored and sever the connection from their end.





Purpose, always purpose: Educating the East End

It’s about family

Teachers: Motivation, to support family

Educating the East End Teachers: Motivation, to support pupils

Walter White, Teacher: Motivation, to support family

Walter White, Teacher, drug manufacturer: Motivation, to support family

It’s back!  Well sort of.  The new Educating… has left Yorkshire and returned dahn sahf, to Walthamstow.  It’s not far from where I live – about 6 miles.  Citymapper tells me I could walk there in 105 minutes.

I won’t, obviously, that would be creepy.

Actually, my eldest started at big school two days ago – Stoke Newington School and 6th Form – a step up.  It makes the programme even more real.

I wrote about Educating Yorkshire last year.  A wonderful programme, which took the lives of the pupils and teachers and carefully fashioned them into stories of triumph over adversity, friction, friendships and development.

The headmaster of the school in the ‘east end’ (it’s not really) explains her purpose:

We’ve got 900 pupils.. bags and bags of potential, but not a lot of self-belief.  Every child in this school deserves to succeed, and our job is to make sure we get it right for every single one of them

Educating Zebedee: a walk across a park

Educating Zebedee first day at secondary school: a walk across a park

Last year, Mr Mitchell talked about creating good citizens.  You might think it was obvious what the teachers are for.  But stating it up front each week is important for the viewers. It helps explain why the programme focuses on the more troubled pupils – the hardest ones.  Comprehensive schools have this purpose (there’s a clue in the word comprehensive), which private and selective schools do not. It’s easy to help a confident minority to succeed, but very hard to extend this mission to everyone.

Once again, we are indebted to John Yorke’s excellent Into The Woods for explaining why it is so important to understand what the characters are all about:

If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive.  And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead….  Purpose must be bestowed and actively sought, or the character is dead.

As in real life, so in character: we are all motivated by objectives, however small, however inconsequential, for most minutes of every day.  If weren’t, we wouldn’t get out of bed.

And it’s the same for viewers: they watch the programme for a purpose – it satisfies their objectives.  And if they don’t have that, fugeddabahdit.  And yet, and yet, beyond the stories, what IS the motivation for viewing this programme.  It’s one of the hardest question you can ask.  Perhaps you shouldn’t ask why you do things at all.

It makes no more sense for a pollster to ask you why you’re voting for someone than it does for a doctor to ask why you’re feeling sick (Nicholas Epley, Mindwise p180)

And the same for why we watch TV programmes – we can rationalise an answer, but the real motivations are about habit, emotions, our personality deep-seated personal needs we barely know exist.  But one straightforward rational reason to watch is that we love to escape into the lives of the protagonists, and this is only possible if we understand what is driving them:

Why do characters in EastEnders offer up the mantra, ‘It’s about family’? Because it gives them something to fight for; it gives them a goal – it animates them. (Yorke)

And if we know what the motivation is, we can forgive what they actually do.  In Breaking Bad, Walter White feels the need to explain his motivation for manufacturing crystal meth (to lay his cards on the table) to a dangerous acquaintance of his, Gus. Gus agrees that clarity is best for business. White does so after he outlines his understanding of what Gus has been up to.

White: I want there to be no confusion.  I know I owe you my life, and more than that, I respect the strategy. In your position, I would have done the same…   You know why I do this.  I want security for my family.

Gus Fring: Then you have it.  (Breaking Bad, S3, Ep9)

And there we the viewers have it too.

By understanding the motivations of the characters, we respect their strategy.  And as long as we can do that, we not only ‘would’ do the same, we are doing the same.  That’s true when it’s something noble like teaching or something less-so, like selling drugs, or watching people die.  Because for as long as we are watching the programmes, and committing ourselves to the story, that’s us on screen, in Walthamstow or Albuquerque, being a headmaster or being Walter White.




Piece of Cake

Having your cake and eating it

Here's one I made earlier

Here’s one I (had) made earlier


I’ve written about The Great British Bake Off before.  About how its audience has risen because its viewers are like molecules of a potent type, which are heated up, and start bumping into each other*…

The programme takes the societal trends of smaller households, low-carb diets, foodie fusion and convenience culture and tips them into a bin, succeeding by presenting elaborate doughy fayre made for a crowd.

It’s a wonderful programme, just like everyone says.

One thing you notice is that while the food is all about the making of the food, there’s little about how it is actually consumed. We are left to come up with our own scenarios for what would happen next. Most of the creations featured in GBBO would be eaten in a communal gathering.  Perhaps a large family eating a cake.  Or a Test Match commentary team.  Or a jury, in deliberation.  You may have your own preferred scenario.

Cake eating can be an event in itself, or the accompaniment to one.

How we normally eat. On our own.  The most depressing picture on this entire blog.

How we often eat. On our own. The most depressing picture on this entire blog.






You eat cakes in a group, slice by slice… that’s the way they’re intended, no?  Like big pies. At the last two places I’ve worked, one encouraged the staff to make cakes to share, while the other went really big on celebrating birthdays with cakes round your desk.  They could not be avoided even by convincing everyone that your birthday was at the weekend..

But you don’t have to eat cakes with others.  You can buy them for yourself and wolf them down in one go, bingeing.  That’s lovely isn’t it.  Stuffing your FACE.

It’s not healthy, but life is for living, and a prematurely shortened like, cake-curtailed if you will, is perfectly valid if that’s your thing.

As Elvis would attest if he was still alive.

Or you can have a thin slice each day and eke it out for a fortnight. Like a desperate saddo.

But there’s an easy confusion here.  One way of eating sounds better than the rest.  Consider if you will, a great cake.  Isn’t eating it alone better because you can eat all of it?  A cake shared is, mostly, a cake you didn’t eat.

Also if it’s a communal cake, it might be one you don’t like.  Someone else’s cake of delight might be, for you, a cake of shit.  A shit cake (don’t get me started on cakes in Hong Kong).

True, but we have to equalise things here by comparing a whole cake eaten alone, with five cakes of the same size that you share with four others.  One might be rubbish, but they balance out. Plus, sharing means introducing your friends to something delightful they’d otherwise miss (like husband-swapping parties of yesteryear).

But however you eat them, a great cake is always great. But while a cake consumed on your own is eaten, when you get to share with others you get to eat it, and have it too.  That’s where the expression comes from.

And when I watch The Great British Bake Off on my own, it’s still good.  But with my children and my partner, and the millions of other happy viewers, I’m not only watching it, we’re having a show-stopping experience and having it large.

‘ave it.




* that’s right, like a flour and yeast and baking powder and that.  Wasn’t sure if I needed to explain.

The elephant in the room


Screen shot 2014-08-18 at 22.52.38

Two friends of mine recently cycled from one end of the British Isles to the other – Lands End to John O’Groats.  When you have gone half the distance you are nearly out of England.  In that respect Scotland is a bit like being over 55.  It’s a massive green/grey area, and a bit… quiet.

There are more old people than ever and they watch a LOT of TV.  When you get to 55, you’ve only watched half the TV you’re going to watch in your life: the older you are, the more you watch.  Pity the television executive determined to deliver a young profile. Unless they actively upset older people with lashings of gore (it’s partly squeamishness, but they also don’t like to suffer when being entertained) or schedule the great discriminator, Top 40 music, they’re stuffed.  Older people will turn up uninvited and enjoy it just as much.  And why not, as Barry Norman, member of the Old Person Hall of Fame might say.

But it is one of the curiosities of ‘the way the world works’ that over 55s are so undervalued commercially – they are said to attract only 5% of advertising spend.  It’s even worse in the US, where over 55s are often not even reported when audience figures are published. Which is odd when you look at a typical night’s audiences – most of them are way over 55.

When London Live – the new TV channel dedicated to London – launched earlier this year, it officially targeted 16-34 year-olds which, in a city full of people who retain their youthfulness well into their.. 60s… was utterly bonkers.

Over 55s watch a lot of TV for the same reason we all do – because it fits their needs.  And, while younger people watch less TV because their engrossing social lives get in the way, they do use TV to enhance these social lives (something to talk about and to help them bond with the gang).  By contrast older viewers watch TV to replace their social lives.

The systematic undervaluation of older people – at great cost to the medium they spend most time with – has persisted, perhaps because they have lacked smart people to fight on their behalf.  (Or they’ve focussed on the political sphere  where MPs are easier to intimidate than advertisers).

Two smart people come to mind.

The first is Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, who writes a brilliant blog bewailing the behaviour of marketers who ignore fundamental truths.  When he is not appalled by the depth of their obsession with social media, he rages at marketers’ love affair with young adults, when it is older people who have all the money.  He has the data, and his consultancy Type A promotes older people as a worthy target for advertisers.

Bob Hoffman: aka the Ad Contrarian

Bob Hoffman: aka the Ad Contrarian

Prof Byron Sharp: Expert

Prof Byron Sharp: Marketing Science Expert

The other is Professor Byron Sharp, the marketing scientist who runs the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute in Australia and wrote the amazing How Brands Grow.  It advises marketers on the basis of what actually works (and what doesn’t).  His data doesn’t actively promote older consumers as a valuable target, but seems to say it implicitly.

Watching the emerging bromance between Byron and Bob has been fascinating – they are so different, and yet so similar.

One fights (largely) with the trusty sword of creativity and the power of imagination, and the other with the trusty shield of empirical data.  One swears, the other proves. (We are put in mind of romantic Hector and dispassionate Irwin from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys). Rather than be distracted by the pizazz of advertising, or by ivory tower academic theories, they both care about the bottom line… sales: what actually matters.

And they are effective because they tell the truth in an entertaining way, just like television, the advertising medium that both value the most.

Ad Contrarian (front), Marketing Scientist (back): Two approaches, one vehicle.

Ad Contrarian (front), Marketing Scientist (back): Two approaches, one vehicle, coming over the horizon, like a miniature cavalry, to help marketers.

What the media world needs, and given its core audience what the television industry really needs to be putting some serious money into, is research to show how to a) mobilise older consumers through creative programmes and advertising, b) the case studies and data to prove that such an effort would be worthwhile to advertisers.

It’s awkward though. In my first job in TV, at CBS in New York, I helped put together a sales pitch for daytime TV – yes it had an old audience, but so what, they had money to spend. Even in 1989 it felt like a dangerous point to prove because sentiment in media is so skewed to the young.  No medium wants to be labelled as old unless it can prove that this is a good thing and force change.

So the enormous older audience to TV is the elephant in the room because broadcasters are reluctant to risk talking about it, even though there’s really nothing to be embarrassed about.

The truth is starting to catch on.  The launch Editorial director of London Live, Stefano Hatfield went straight from overseeing an unnecessarily youthful channel, to editor-in-chief for a website aimed at over-50s.  It took me four years to go from MTV to working at BBC News while his conversion took a few days.

But this feels like just the start…   the elephant in the room is not only big and grey, it can’t be ignored any longer.


How Old can be Gold




Killing children

Kids and Guns

Kids and Guns. Daddy's girl, with his favourite toy

Kids and Guns.
Daddy’s girl, with his favourite toy

I was annoyed with the Guardian TV critic the other day who complained that there was so little to watch.  But peppered through the schedules are excellent documentaries we can easily miss.  Some are just too unsettling to want to see, but deserve our attention.

Kids and Guns was a wonderful documentary about …. well there was a clue in the title.  In America, it seems, many parents want their children to learn to shoot.  In an astonishing early clip we saw two children being given a gun for Christmas.  The older one complains to his father

Father: Andrew, here’s your gun

Andrew’s older brother: You’re crazy.

Father: Why?

Son: I’m too young to have a gun.

Father: No you’re not. Do you think I’m gonna let you have a gun whenever you want?

Son (pointing to younger brother): But Andrew’s too young.  He’s three, and I’m six.

Amazingly, those few words, by this wonderful six-year old were the most sensible ones we heard in the entire programme.  We saw a reluctant little girl being pushed into shooting, a controlling father called Spyder cruelly forcing his daughter to shooting competitions, and a grief-stricken couple whose son had accidentally shot himself when hunting on his own.  They coped with their loss by blaming the gun manufacturers.

That’s one coping method.

If there is a coping method for distressing television I’d like to know. We are left with a sense of mute helplessness in the face of such peculiar behaviour.  The United States can produce so many wonderfully sophisticated programmes (and much else, of course), while being the home of such dreadfully misguided people. Perhaps the hardest thing is their immunity to argument – it’s not just sad, it’s distressing and frustrating to witness.  Without the option of debating with the participants directly the viewer is left wanting to shoot something or taking it out on the remote control.

But American TV does include a LOT of debate.  I like to watch clips of articulate atheists engaging with Christians and other theists.  Some are British – notably Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – but others are Americans.  Matt Dillahunty hosts a phone-in in Texas called The Atheist Experience, and while we might get Nicky Campbell getting lots of comments from a crowd of guests of The Big Questions, Dillahunty goes into far more depth. It’s really good.  Try the clip here.

When I went to Twitter earlier and searched for #kidsandguns the first tweet that came up was a gruesome photo of a dead child who had been blown apart by a missile in Gaza.  While more than 3000 American children are killed or seriously injured by guns each year we didn’t see any of the bodies in the programme. But coverage of the war in Gaza has been full of them – and you can see reporters struggling to maintain journalistic balance in the face of such distress.  This is a story which cries out for discussion and engagement with the issues.  Interesting to see that while Americans can have a serious debate about gun control, there is close to unanimous support from Congress in favour of the principle killers of children in this dispute.  It seems that American peculiarity isn’t limited to gun-toting parents.

Social media give an opportunity for viewers to vent our frustrations but perhaps the Guardian TV critic had a point: the most natural response to this horrendous story and our frustrations is simply to switch off.



Peace and quiet in the supermarket War *

*this domain name is still available…

Warholian like you... how dandy. One is from Lidl and one is not available there.  But which?!

Warholian like you… how dandy. One is only available from from Lidl and one is NOT available from Lidl. But which?!

The major supermarket players were very slow to recognise that this is structural change in the market place. And as is often the case when you get structural change, it is easy to just say ‘this is cyclical, it will only last a couple of years’ not understanding that this is a fundamental change in the way that Britain shops.

 So what is it, .., is it online shopping?  Must be!  But it is NOT.

A trusted institution we like

Our institutions are under attack. MPs and government are obviously beyond the pale. The press – forget it. Crime is falling, but can the authorities catch tax dodgers? they surely cannot… useless authorities… The police?… did you read about Operation Elveden?

We can’t even trust avuncular celebrities from yesteryear.

Why, the only institutions a gullible person can trust these days are supermarkets…  they’ve transformed the way we eat and they’re just trolley-pushing-lovely!

Aren’t they?!

EXCEPT that for some time, TV programmes have been examining them and sounding the alarm – which is brave considering how much they spend on TV advertising.  We used to hear about how supermarkets have been screwing over farmers and small shops, so the delicious problem they face now from discount retailers is strangely satisfying.  Because the big problem they face – we are told – is competition from the discount retailers Aldi and Lidl.

Schadenfreude is forgiveble in the face of Tesco’s hubris and obviously appropriate since these foreign retailers are German.

So I’ve just watched Supermarket Wars Dispatches on Channel 4, which showed how the big UK players – notably Tesco and Sainsbury’s had been out-manoeuvred by Aldi and Lidl.  The programme jumped around a bit, but its main point was that shoppers are bargain-hunting like never before and that Aldi and Lidl offer decent quality and low low prices to shoppers who want them: shoppers depart having spent far less money than in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. And these bargains are available because Aldi and Lidl offer less choice – they are more efficient.

Which is all true, and I knew it already.  We also had 78 seconds on the scandal of discounted lemons being offered on ‘discount’ as 4 for £1, after Tesco said they’d stop selling them so cheap.  They are now 25p each…

Go on.. tell us about an outrage involving oranges.

But the programme said something I’d not heard before, and also missed something out.  Or two things.

A road to nowhere

It pointed out that for all the vaunted charm of supermarket delivery, the supermarkets are losing money every time they deliver.  They might charge £4, but it costs 4 times that to collect and deliver all the items and to maintain the vans and websites. I’ll bet, though they didn’t say, that online shoppers buy fewer items.  [In the spirit of full disclosure I should point out that I loath online supermarket shoppers.  They are clearly lazy people who hate meeting other people: they probably avoid public transport too…]. Why are the rest of us subsidising these awful snobs by (the programme said,  £100 million per year)?

The programme did not point out that Aldi and Lidl don’t offer home delivery.

Lidl Finsbury Park, my regular hang-out. I carry the  stuff home, arms aching

Lidl Finsbury Park, my regular hang-out. I carry the stuff home, arms aching

The curse of choice

What the show also didn’t point out, was that Aldi and Lidl aren’t only popular because offering a narrower range allowed them to charge less.  They are popular BECAUSE of the smaller range.  We don’t NEED 45 types of pasta.  We normally buy the same staples anyway, so why would we want to see all the other shit?  It’s an unnecessary temptation.  Going to Lidl is a bit like going online anyway – it’s efficient and easy and we get to meet a charming person from Central Europe (though unlike online shopping, we don’t get them coming round to our house with our stuff).

The reason we spend less in Lidl and Aldi isn’t only because the prices.  It’s because we aren’t seduced into buying more stuff while we are getting what we actually need (and for what it’s worth, I do get utterly fed up with the discounts in Sainsbury’s on bulk buys of perishables – I don’t want to binge on fucking bread!).

What has all this to do with TV audiences?

Consider a couple of things.

What to innovate and why

I watched this programme on my Virgin Tivo PVR.  I watched some of the adverts and fast-forwarded some others.  If I’d avoided the adverts, I’d have been subsidised by the people watching the adverts on TV.  I’m like a person getting home deliveries and being subsidised for the privilege by the people who go to the shop.

For a supermarket, innovating might have involved scaling things back – concentrating on the staples shoppers actually buy.  Not offering loss-making deliveries to people who spend less money.  TV channels have to offer on-demand services and more chances to watch programmes, but if you’re a broadcaster you’re about wonderful big programmes aimed at broad audiences, NOT an illusion of personalised relationships.  The priority is finding those big programmes – and innovating there, not in delivery systems which lose money.

Waitrose Holloway: it's posher, and these days I get over-stimulated by the choice

Waitrose Holloway: it’s posher, and these days I get over-stimulated by the choice

The problem of choice

Yes, we like choice – it’s what being modern and developed is all about.. limitless choice, but as with food, the same for television: most people don’t, generally use much of the choice they have.  The average person watches around 4 channels each day.  As this advert from Freeview says, 95% of what we watch is available free on Freeview.  All the extra premium channels add up to relatively small viewing. Supermarkets gain from processing staples and adding a premium price (just as marketers have done to staples such as rice, flour and horse-meat).

So Lidl and Aldi are to Tesco and Sainsburys as Freeview is to Sky or BT Sport – offering what people what they need and not all the occasional fluff they don’t.

A sense of perspective

We learned today that Aldi and Lidl are growing, but their combined share is still only 8.4%.  Impressive, but only half of Sainsbury’s or Asda, and a third of Tesco.   Tesco’s share price has dropped by 28% in a year – and people are writing it off the way they used to write off ITV (and we can see what happened to them…)

How do Tesco and the others compete with Aldi and Lidl? By diverting some of the subsidies to online shoppers into the quality of the in-store experience, AND by offering quick-shop options and special stores, with far fewer choices, to people who want to come in and out quickly.  Why not call it Tesc or Tesl?  Or Sndl?

And they could ignore some of the wilder forecasts of their demise just as sensible TV channels do.

Consumer power?

Finally,… if you want a sledgehammer to make this supermarket /broadcaster analogy even more obvious…. the conclusion of this Dispatches programme was the usual mantra that the consumer is now in charge.  Aah yes. Consumers  are expressing their choice by giving it to discounters…

And yet, the wealthiest people in Europe we are told, are not into oil, or banks… no, they’re the people who own Zara, Lidl, Aldi, and H&M.

.So just as the internet has ushered in consumer power, and they‘ve chosen to give it all to Google, Amazon and Facebook, so shoppers are now in charge but giving it to the usual limited crowd.  When it comes to television programmes, the consumer has more choice than ever, which is great.  But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the new players in TV – US tech firms which could buy up TV channels and barely notice it in their balance sheet – are about giving consumers more power.  Aldi and Lidl may not be monopolists, but the threat to television is coming from people who would like to be (and in some respects are already)