The future of TV? It's all about the audience

"I feel the audience behind me looking over my shoulder at every word I put down, and I can hear them talking about it the next morning," writes Tony Jordan, one of Britain's most prolific screenwriters, elder statesman of EastEnders and creator of Hustle and Life on Mars

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The future of TV? It's all about the audience
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“Ten or twenty years from now, you could be sitting at a campfire in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from the nearest television set or mast, and catch up with your favourite TV drama – and it’s not too great a stretch to suggest that instead of watching on a conventional screen or even an iPod, you’ll be picking up Casualty on your wristwatch, or tuning into EastEnders via your glasses.”

Tony Jordan, formerly an East End market trader, was for many years the lead writer and series consultant for EastEnders. His Red Planet Pictures is a completely independent production company – and one of the most successful in the UK. He reveals that his continuing success in drama productions is not based on metrics or big data, which he believes doesn’t help us understand the audience. He is adamant that once the commercial side of TV starts to dictate to the creative side, it’s a sure route to disaster.

Storytelling began thousands of years ago around campfires in the desert: lonely travellers listening to the spinners of tales. Audiences have become massively bigger over the generations, but the speed of technological change suggests that ironically, drama and storytelling are heading back to where they began. Ten or twenty years from now, you could be sitting at a campfire in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from the nearest television set or mast, and catch up with your favourite TV drama – and it’s not too great a stretch to suggest that instead of watching on a conventional screen or even an iPod, you’ll be picking up Casualty on your wristwatch, or tuning into Eastenders via your glasses.

The interesting question for me, as a writer, is how those stories will be told. Will the fact that delivery will be so personal, an individual rather than communal experience in front of the family’s living room television set, fundamentally alter the way drama is constructed?

But if television is to have any future ten or twenty years down the line, the people who commission TV drama need to keep one thing firmly in mind – it’s all about the audience. By that, I don’t mean burying your nose in data and research and focus groups. I write for people that watch telly, and to be successful at that, you need to understand people and the things that unite them, to watch television as they do. Perhaps it’s a working class thing, but I love grabbing a cup of tea at the end of a long day, putting my feet up, and watching something on the box that helps me lose myself in a good storyline. It’s about watching television as a viewer does, so you understand who your core audience is and what they want, honing your instincts for what will grab them.

Before I came into this business, I worked on a market stall, day after day with ordinary people, listening to them talking about their life experience, what they watched on the telly last night and why. That gives you a great instinct for how to play an audience – a skill that seems to be conspicuously lacking in some of the TV executives I’ve met, especially those obsessed by the metrics. Take soaps. I learned my trade writing for a soap, and that’s made me a bit of a purist about the genre. It’s common knowledge that I won my first break as a writer by sending an unsolicited script about market traders to the BBC, fortuitously at the point they were looking for new writers for EastEnders. (I didn’t dare correct their misapprehension and tell them I was actually born in Southport, Merseyside, so I spent the next five years pretending to be a Londoner.) Twenty years of market trading teaches you a lot about people, and writing in my shed at the bottom of the garden, I feel the audience behind me looking over my shoulder at every word I put down, and I can hear them talking about it the next morning. It helped me through those years of crafting plotlines for Albert Square.

But looking at what’s on the screen today, my belief is that the bubble bursts for soaps (and television in general) the minute those in charge become cynical and lose regard for the audience’s intelligence. There are far too many meeting rooms – not just in the UK, but throughout the global television industry – where the people deciding on storylines have no real sense of who watches, and no respect for what they might want.

You can imagine the conversation in the production office. “Oh, nothing much is happening at Christmas, so let’s kill him and make her a murderer, or let’s steal a baby.” Never mind how these particular characters have behaved previously; it’s all about the shock value.

These people don’t understand what the audience really loves about a series like EastEnders: the indomitable spirit of the characters. Yes, the world may be shit, yes, I may not have any money, and yes, my husband may have just left me, but do you know what? I’m going to roll up my sleeves, take care of my children and get on with living, doing the best I can because I don’t know what else to do. Audiences are inspired and moved by that, because it reflects real people coping with real life. It’s why people watch that kind of drama, it makes them feel part of something. And that, frankly, is a million miles away from a group of affluent TV types sitting around in a television meeting room musing: “What can we do to pull in a big seasonal ratings boost? What if he shags her? What will get us the most headlines?”

I’m by no means a data snob: every show Red Planet does, I get a report stuffed with graphs and pie charts which I read, and find rather interesting. But those numbers don’t necessarily affect what I choose to do next. I plan my projects using my own instinct for an audience, instead of what someone tells me my audience is thinking, extrapolated from a mass of figures. If you believe that data is king, and consequently plan with the intention of making those pie charts look right, you are doomed to fail.

Number crunchers easily fall into the trap of placing too much reliance on knee-jerk reactions. Researchers sometimes give an audience a dial on the arm of their chairs as they watch a new show: turn it to the left if they are happy, turn it to the right if they don’t like what’s on screen. I’ve had conversations with executives who’ve told me: “See where the chart dips? They weren’t happy with that line, they didn’t like that kiss.” But instant recoil should not be used to inform decisions about what works in a drama; that kiss may be setting up something that happens twenty minutes later, and without it the story doesn’t hang together. It’s like telling the kids to get in the car when it’s cold and raining – they’d be turning their armchair dials to say they didn’t want to, but once the car arrives at Thorpe Park, everything is different. What matters is how the viewers feel about the story at the end. Similarly, you may get a temporary spike in audience figures when your soap character goes berserk and murders his mother, but six months down the line, has your core audience begun to trickle away?

Of course headlines matter, and there has to be a commercial side to this industry as well as a creative side, or what would be the point of me sitting in my garden shed writing scripts all day without someone finding the money to get them made? Equally, there are two kinds of execs that I’ve come across in TV. The first type play it safe, and want the security of a writer they know, a bankable star, and a format that’s been proven to work before. The others want to be innovative, be willing to take a risk and are in the business to set the world on fire, not maintain the status quo. For the moment, there is a pretty good balance of the two in television. But once the commercial side starts to rule the creative side, it’s a sure route to disaster.

I’m not saying I always know how to get it right; sometimes I’ve been spectacularly wrong about what an audience wants. But as long as I feel proud of what’s on the screen, that I’ve been true to myself and to my characters, failure doesn’t sting so much. I just learn from it, try and understand why I was so out of tune with the audience and move on to the next project. We shouldn’t be afraid to fail sometimes.

Incidentally, I don’t buy the line that we aren’t spending enough on drama; it’s rather more nuanced than that. I’d say investment in drama is, if anything, is even greater than before. But a lot of the money is not coming from the UK. Today, many shows are funded using co-production money from abroad, and realistically there will be a quid pro quo. The Nativity, which I wrote for the BBC a few years ago, was part-funded by Canada, and in return some Canadian actors were cast, and money was spent over there on post-production. Again, Death In Paradise is a joint UK and French production, so we have a French lead in Sara Martins and it is shot in Guadeloupe, a French territory in the Caribbean.

This is the way of the world today, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to change it: both productions benefited immeasurably from co-funding. But my main concern looking ahead is how easy it is for a show to fall into the wrong hands and be watered down. There is a danger that with the wrong kind of producer, you will be making decisions based solely on raising the necessary money to get the show made. That has already begun to happen in the film industry, which has been hijacked by the kind of executives who like to play it safe. It may even be why we are seeing such an outpouring of creativity from screenwriters who are choosing TV to tell their stories, because for now they have more freedom in television. When television too becomes about putting the deal together, rather than the creative integrity of the product, we will be in big trouble. I am hoping that there are enough of us in the business who care enough not to allow that to happen, but it is my biggest fear for the future of television drama. As television companies become financially more ambitious, and TV drama more and more expensive to produce, could it too go the way of Hollywood?

But let’s put aside these gloomy thoughts and look ahead instead to the question I raised at the start: what sort of stories might we be telling ten years from now to those lonely viewers watching under the desert stars on their video-glasses? Will individual viewing change the narrative shape of television drama?

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it could all be quite simple – and not so different from what we should do today. When I used to spiel on the markets to fifty or a hundred people, all standing in front of me waiting to be convinced to buy, I used to find that something rather weird happened when it was going well. Those hundred people became a single unit, reacting as one, all doing exactly the same things at the same time. I’ve heard actors and comedians talk about the same phenomenon, in which an audience composed of many becomes just a single person when you get your performance right. So my guess is that whether it’s one individual alone under the desert stars or twenty million, you’re always talking to just one person.

Don’t rely so much on the numbers, let the technology go where it will, stop panicking about a funding crisis: what matters, after all, is to know and understand the people to whom we are spinning tales. That doesn’t come from a dial on the side of an armchair; it comes from living in the real world alongside them.  

2024: The Future of Television, edited by UKTV's Communications Director, Zoë Clapp, is available for free download on 27 February from Amazon.co.uk and iTunes