Monday, 5 March 2012

Who are you talking to?

Today I found out that I'm not middle aged.

I feel better for that.

At 37 and a half, I thought that I was well on my way to the furry boots and the tartan blanket; it doesn't help that I enjoy wearing a tweed cap when I'm driving.

"Start The Week" on BBC Radio 4, can be one of those programmes that disappears up its own intellectual pretensions but this week it reminded me of a process that was discredited in the BBC.

It's the process of thinking about your audience in context.

Or to 'Do a Dave and Sue'.

'Dave and Sue' were a composite couple that were created to focus programming on BBC Local Radio. The average age of the journalists in any local radio news room is about 13... or at least that's how it always felt to me. These 13 year-olds were making programmes for people over 50. Sometimes it's a bit of a mental stretch; what a tender young journalist thinks is interesting will often be beyond dull for the 50+ audience they are serving.

In walked 'Dave and Sue', the composite couple that was there to connect the programme makers with the audience; they were born out of the years of quantitative and qualitative demographic research carried out by the BBC.

I thought it was great, for a number of years I was aware that some of the programming was being done to serve the staff and not the audience and I'd worked with the concept in commercial broadcasting. It was going to make everything better by simply adding context.

Bless the BBC for mishandling the whole thing.

No, really, bless 'em all.

Instead of creating a context for the listeners lives, and letting the broadcasters think "This is really important/useful/funny/interesting how do I frame it to pitch properly to 'Dave and Sue' what's the context for them?" They were constantly told to simply ask "what do 'Dave and Sue' like?".

This resulted in very dull radio, lots of caravan features and prostate phone-ins.

All 'Dave and Sue' were was a tool for providing context by bringing together the demographic research. They became a tool for defining output.

Listeners left in the bucket load from all but a very small number of stations. The station I was working for was one of the 4 out of 40 who increased listener-ship through the whole sorry episode.

So what does this have to do with being middle aged and Andrew Marr?

As I get older I am surprised by the pitches (advertising, PR, entertainment) that either lacks context or is ruled by it's context because the demographic research says so... Shampoo ads or chocolate ads targeting men in their 30's by using amateur football imagery. Participation in amateur football covers a tiny proportion of the men in their 30's (angling remains the biggest participation sport in the country) and annoys the rest of us. Sitcoms where people just sort of do stuff with no back story because it's kooky and people like kooky...

I could go on.

For a very long time.

Beware the use of demographic research it may mean that you miss the wider context..

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