Channel 4 has announced it is to boldly go where no broadcaster has gone before and will harness the power of social media “buzz” to shape the schedules on its new repeats channel, 4seven.
With Twitter hashtags adorning our screens before, during and after almost every programme these days and regular calls to arms to use Facebook to tell programme-makers what we think of their shows, a 4seven-style channel never seemed far away in some form. Nor is it a great surprise that Channel 4, a broadcaster that has spent 30 years priding itself on innovation – and risk – is leading the charge.
David Abrahams, Channel 4’s boss, has said 4seven “will schedule the main channel content that is creating noise – amongst social media, bloggers, commentators and of course via contact our viewers have directly with us – and incorporate this buzz into the look and feel of the channel.”
Of course, a lot of questions remain about this new channel, which viewers can expect to see from late summer via Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media.
Firstly, just how much say will the people have? As a commercial channel, are Channel 4 really going to hand over full control to the people and disregard the best yielding advertisement opportunities?
Surely they’ll have to tinker with the schedules themselves – and presumably that is why the “buzz” that shapes the channel is a rather woolly concept. One imagines “contact viewers have directly with us” could be used as a failsafe to ensure the schedulers keep some handle on the output.
Secondly, do viewers really want a channel full of buzz programmes? One only has to glance at the trends on Twitter of an evening to see that the people don’t always have impeccable – or wide-ranging – taste. Certain shows lend themselves better to discussion on Twitter (reality TV, extreme TV) far more than others (good drama, thoughtful documentaries).
Furthermore, many programmes that create social media “buzz” are doing so because they are abysmal – therefore does 4seven run the risk of repeating some of the worst of Channel 4’s content again because it was slated so much first time around?
Of course, we don’t know yet – and may never know – what Channel 4’s “buzz” algorithm will entail. However, it’s probably fair to presume Twitter will be a pretty important part of it.
So what Channel 4 shows have been causing a buzz on Twitter lately? Well, according to data provided to RadioTimes.com by tellybug.com, in the past month Embarrassing Bodies has been creating a stir – its broadcast on 5 March garnering almost 40,000 tweets during the show. One can presume, therefore, that fans of anatomical anomalies would find their favourite show on 4seven.
Other Twitter big hitters from 4 include controversial reality-doc Make Bradford British (28,000 tweets), controversial pop-doc Bouncers (22,000 tweets) and controversial documentary Proud and Prejudiced (16,000 tweets). Yes, it looks like controversy fans would also be well served by 4seven.
Many of the most talked about shows in the last month were films, including My Super Ex-Girlfriend (22,000 tweets) and PS I Love You (16,000 tweets) – but rights issues may prevent movies from being repeated, and surely Channel 4 doesn’t want 4seven to simply descend into being a downmarket version of Film4.
Delving further into the buzz, perhaps One Born Every Minute (13,000 tweets) might make the grade, Supersize vSuperskinny (11,000 tweets) and Party Paramedics (10,000 tweets).
However, there’s no guarantee that based on Twitter buzz some of Channel 4’s biggest properties – including Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (9,500 tweets), US comedy New Girl (7,000 tweets) or critically acclaimed spy thriller Homeland (9,500 tweets) – would get on to the channel.
Similarly, Channel 4 bread and butter like Hollyoaks, Deal or No Deal, Shameless, Dispatches and 10 o’Clock Live (none of which have a great Twitter performance) would look likely to be excluded.
Now, of course this data doesn’t tell the whole story because it only includes Twitter figures, but it does illustrate some of the problems Channel 4 might run into when 4seven launches.
It is clear that people will expect to see Homeland and Shameless – but if they’re not getting the “buzz” required, how is the channel meant to show them? Likewise, if the channel is being too obviously manipulated by schedulers, what’s the point in it existing – they might as well just launch Channel 4 Gold.
For now we’ll have to wait and see – but personally, I’m glad I’m not at Channel 4 HQ being asked to deliver this channel in the summer, because from what we know right now, there are still a lot more questions than answers.