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Can TV drama attract a broad church after all?

08 May 2013  |  Richard Marks 

Broadchurch was a huge hit for ITV, says Richard Marks of Research the Media - but will it be able to replicate that success? Whatever happens, at least we've learned that rather than 'the Internet' proving to be a threat to TV, in many ways it is just what it has been waiting for: digital technology propagating a buzz around a show, and then giving people the means to join the party.

Isn't it great when you finally figure it out? Observers of television trends, myself included, thought we had got it sussed: viewing behaviour is gradually polarising, we thought:

Exhibit A: Predominantly linear viewing of reality, soaps, special events, sports and news. These generate buzz and a feeling of an event; a mostly linear shared viewing experience reinforced by social media.

Exhibit B: Dramas and other genres, increasingly consumed in a non-linear fashion via timeshift, catch up and VOD. TV series that are designed to be watched in the viewer's own time and at their own pace.

Sorted. Well done us.

Then along comes ITV's Broadchurch and drives a coach and horses through those assumptions - a complex, engrossing drama that gradually builds a massive audience across eight episodes.

This week the final consolidated rating for the final episode was released - a dizzying 10.5 million, 1.4 million higher than the season launch eight weeks earlier. How is this even possible for a post watershed drama? This wasn't supposed to happen.

After all, the general assumption is that - outside of soaps and mini-series - to have wide appeal; to get those sorts of figures, the big dramas cannot have continuing storylines or be mini-movies spread across many episodes. People want a 'story of the week', to tune in and understand straight away what is going on - not to have to obediently watch all the episodes in order.

The dramas with the complex continuing story lines and characterisation hoover up Emmys and BAFTAs but tend to have modest viewing levels - particularly shows like that poster child for non-linear viewing, The Wire.

So the general perception is that these continuing dramas start big and then hang on to a smaller, diminishing audience of loyalists and TV reviewers who make it through to the end. That is certainly what I was expecting for Broadchurch. However what transpired was a perfect alignment of creativity and technological enablement.

Looking at the creative aspect first, the production and direction were outstanding, creating a real sense of time and place inspired by Nordic Noir, whilst casting possibly the two most charismatic actors on UK television at the moment in David Tennant and Olivia Colman as the gateway into a large and excellent cast.

The script itself masterfully mixed realism and strong characterisation with an addictive whodunnit thread to get people coming back, leading to at least one WTF?! moment each episode. Executive producer and writer Chris Chibnall has a fundamental understanding of how TV dramas work, even the interaction with ad breaks:

"It's designed for those ad breaks. It's designed for a big cliffhanger at the end of the episode. It's designed to play at 9pm, in four acts. And so I think there's nothing quite like watching it live. Plus, we also have cliffhangers and reveals and twists that if you watch it three days later and you've been on twitter, you're going to get it spoiled for you." (TV Choice)

As a result, the show was able to build a buzz, keep the original viewers engaged and attract new ones along the way. Yes, via social media, but also via good old-fashioned 'analogue' chat as well. I am not going to enrage Nigel Walley by debating Social TV correlation versus causality, that is an article for another day.

However, it is clear that on and off-line buzz around the show grew and grew over the eight weeks, with the final episode the most tweeted drama yet according to SecondSync.

This on and off-line buzz helped as a call to action, but the availability of past episodes on ITV Player was also essential to the momentum of the show. People could see what they had been missing and bring themselves up to date.

The benefit here was that this drove people to the ITV broadcast itself. As more and more people talked about the show, the chances of avoiding 'spoilers' diminished. Increasingly viewers could not risk seeing workmates or friends the next day - or switch on the radio or go online - and hope to avoid discussion about the most recent episode.

So here we have two points that we had not factored in when talking about the polarisation of viewing - firstly the ability of catch up services to drive viewers back to subsequent broadcast, allowing viewers to prime themselves before jumping on the live viewing 'train' itself.

This can create a cumulative effect and allow a series with a continuing storyline to thrive as oppose to alienating new viewers. Secondly, the connected, always on nature of life online makes the avoidance of spoilers hard, so - once hooked - people will try to watch live, or at least on the same day.

Other factors also combined to reinforce the show's success - an excellent outdoor campaign, an appallingly cold Spring, good scheduling and great trailers. However let's get to the Big Question: can it happen again or was this just a 'perfect storm', a one off?

Well I think it will be hard for ITV to replicate - it wasn't just about the digital context but the excellence of the show itself, that perfect creative moment when things come together.

However, what it does tell us is that, rather than 'the Internet' proving to be a threat to television, in many ways it is just what television has been waiting for, in this case digital technology propagating a buzz around the show, and then giving people the means to join the party - a rolling stone gathering digital moss.

So, if this gives ITV the courage to invest in more high quality, complex continuing dramas, more Broadchurches and less Midsummer Murders (even if the Danes like it) then it will mean the digital revolution has enriched not just our range of choice but its quality as well.

And what of the Broadchurch 'franchise' itself? Well in the pre-Internet 90s, a quirky detective also visited a close knit town of people harbouring complex secrets to investigate who killed Laura Palmer. However, after the killer was revealed, Twin Peaks viewing went off a cliff - unlike Danny Latimer.

So Broadchurch 2 will be a challenge, but hopefully Chris Chibnall can succeed where David Lynch failed. Meanwhile, who can forget the most chilling revelation of that final episode - David Tennant still uses a Blackberry! Mind you, if he had been using Apple Maps he would have probably ended up at the Church instead...


Richard Marks is the Director of Research The Media. Find out more here.

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