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How they keep us watching

03 Apr 2018  |  Heather Andrew 
How they keep us watching

Neuroscience and marketing specialist Heather Andrew reveals the techniques reality TV shows deploy to keep us hooked

Last year, the third series of ITV2’s Love Island took the nation by storm, attracting over two and a half million viewers each night during its 8-week run. The show joins a long lineage of reality TV game shows that have managed to capture the public’s attention, and the genre’s growth shows no sign of abating.

However, keeping an audience hooked in this way is no mean feat, and only the most successful shows eventually become part of their audiences’ lives. With this in mind, what are the most effective creative techniques that keep us coming back for more, confirming our “brand” loyalty to a show, and paying dividends for viewership figures and advertisers as a result?

From the brain’s perspective, there are certain specific elements of successful shows that enable them to stand out and rise to cult status; understanding the subconscious patterns of brain response to content can shed light on effectiveness of various creative techniques and help us understand what truly makes compelling reality TV.

One creative aspect of reality TV that can serve shows particularly well is to create a network of clear associations in the brain which become instantly recognisable as elements of the programme’s iconography. When we come across new content or information, our memory links it by association to our existing knowledge and neural networks in our brain grow.

From Big Brother’s Diary Room, to the red shorts and Bushtucker trials on I’m A Celebrity, the strongest reality shows have harnessed clear iconography, best reinforced if it appears in every episode and across multiple series. Such cues help build a show “brand” which viewers can buy into, the associations with which can be quickly and effectively triggered.

It can be helpful to think of these shows’ neural networks as rooms in our heads, with one room for each “brand” of reality TV gameshow we come across. For familiar and well-loved shows, these rooms are decorated and full of associations that give the room a feel that reflects our experiences and impressions about that particular programme.

However, whilst the creators may wish it was otherwise, we’re unlikely to spend much time with a particular show front of mind and, as a result, the “brand room” is usually in darkness.

The use of iconography works as a trigger or switch to turn on the light in the room – bringing all the positive association we’ve built up over time back into the light. Over time, this helps deliver a virtuous circle of recognition, association and preference.

As in advertising, the extent to which a show is stored into long-term memory is an indicator of its effectiveness. Successful memory encoding has been shown to have strong links to future decision-making and actions such as tuning in to watch a show.

One of the key purposes of memory is to help us make sense of the world by threading pieces of information together and creating a connection between them, and so intriguing narrative development - the backbone of all good reality TV – is a key driver of memory response.

Another creative technique that is employed by successful reality TV shows is exploring the human psyche within a variety of different settings. In this context, recognisable casting archetypes (the ditzy one, the argumentative one, the passive one etc.) remind viewers of people in their own lives and sometimes even themselves.

Provided these are grounded in reality - caricatures are likely to encourage the brain to tune out - this helps people identify with the show and relate to it. This is important because personal relevance is another key driver of memory encoding.

However, there is a watch-out for newer shows attempting to emulate their predecessors. Because memory works by association, and builds network of associations, a new show that is very similar to a previous one may simply get bundled into the same network and fail to make strong new associations of its own.

In this situation, a new show can run the risk of actually promoting the more successful predecessor; far from riding on the wave of a similar show’s success, the new show in question may actually be adding to it.

Whilst there may be identifiable creative techniques that reality TV shows can use to draw in viewers, it’s clear there is a fine line between occupying a coveted spot in people’s lives, and prompting the brain to tune out. As with all successful content, there is a subtlety lying behind reality game shows that, on the surface, might seem anything but.

Heather Andrew, UK CEO, Neuro-Insight

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