Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the BBC’s internal Audience Research Unit compiled up to 700 television Audience Research reports per year, attempting to cover the complete spectrum of BBC TV programming. What I’m going to do today is consider the value of this material, in relation to my own work on the development of BBC Scotland drama productions as part of the ‘Forgotten Television Drama’ project. I’m going to demonstrate why the audience research reports are of use to historians, and explore methodologies that I’ve used in my research with them; forming conclusions through looking at reports for similar programmes spread across a number of years; and decoding audience’s reactions through establishing what was left unsaid in reports.
The reports – kept at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham – took a standardized form, divided into several sections, providing; transmission details, an estimate of the audience size in terms of percentage of the UK population, an attempt to gauge audience reception (the Reaction Index) through a mark out of 100 compiled by asking viewers to rate the programme seen on a five point scale, and several paragraphs of commentary. This information was collected via questionnaire.
In reports for drama programmes, the commentary was often structured into separate paragraphs presenting the case for and against the individual programme, followed by sections detailing audiences’ evaluation of the performances contained within – and the perceived style of – the production.
What form did Audience Research Reports take?
AN AUDIENCE RESEARCH REPORT
(Week 51) VR/73/714
Play of the Month
Producer: Christopher Morahan
Sunday, 16th December 1973. 8.15-10.15 pm. BBC-1
- Size of audience (based on results of the Survey of Listening and Viewing). It is estimated that the audience for this broadcast was 18% of the United Kingdom population. Programmes on BBC-2 and ITV at the time were seen by 6.8% and 21% (averages).
- Reaction of audience (based on 295 questionnaires completed by 18% of the Viewing Panel). The reactions of this sample of the audience were distributed as follows:-
A+ 21% A 46% B 26% C 5% C- 0%
Giving a REACTION INDEX of 71. In weeks 29, 38, 43 and 47, the figures were 63, 53, 59 and 51 respectively.
- Undoubtedly, the majority greatly enjoyed this version of Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from Cockney flower-seller to high society ‘lady’ in Shaw’s Pygmalion. It was ‘Shaw at his best’, and ‘a real evergreen’, according to some, though a less enthusiastic minority, regarding it as ‘pretty thin stuff today’, found it boring in parts, and decidedly ‘too old-hat’. Some were also disappointed, it seems, at an apparent departure from the original: they could see no reason, they said, for an alteration to the script, which, in their view, was ‘no improvement’. But, despite the many versions claimed to have been seen by some (from school plays to the musical My Fair Lady), this Pygmalion greatly appealed to most of the sample.
- Generally speaking, the entire cast was considered good, although there were some criticisms of over-acting (especially by james Villiers), and ‘unconvincing’ accents (notably Lynn Redgrave’s). However, as one viewer remarked, ‘this kind of Cockney accent doesn’t really “belong” today so is bound to feel artificial’, and, as has been said, the cast as a whole was thought to have given a splendid performance.
- Apart from one or two critics, seemingly disturbed at times by ‘wobbly’ props (staircase and walls, in particular), there was widespread agreement that the overall production contributed greatly to viewers’ enjoyment – costumes, make-up, sets (especially in the bathtub scene), all receiving special mention as imparting a good period flavor.
- 85% watched the whole play; 7% came in in the middle; 5% switched off before the end, and 3% just tried a bit.
Audience Research Department
15th January 1974
This typical report (the 714th collated in 1973) provides the researcher with more than just statistical information, but suggests something of how audiences interpreted such a play, and the frame of reference through which they viewed it. The five-point scale of the Reaction Index (with A+ recording great approval, A appreciation, B a normal reaction, C for antipathy and C- representing active dislike) provides us with a fairly sophisticated barometer for understanding audience reaction. In this instance we can see that Pygmalion was a production which few viewers disliked, and to which none took great exception, and from which almost half of the audience derived real, but not exceptional, engagement and approval.
The further reactions articulated in the rest of the report demonstrate how the audience’s response to this specific programme was conditioned by the familiarity of the material, a ‘real evergreen’ play which viewers could detect alterations made to. The report suggests that advance knowledge of Shaw’s play predisposed this particular audience to forgive the flaws and inconsistencies that they observed, the inconsistent accents and wobbling sets failing to stop the enjoyment derived from performances and attractive period production values.
What use are the audience research reports?
The Pygmalion report illustrates the unique value of the BBC’s Audience Research for historians: helping us to understand what people thought about a range of television at the time that it was broadcast, rather than retrospectively. Other sources, such letters to newspapers and magazines, only record exceptional responses of either praise or condemnation. But the great value of the Audience Research Reports lies in their record of everyday responses, which would otherwise have been quickly forgotten and lost forever, to the whole range of BBC programming, unlike the work of professional television critics.
Although examples taken from Audience Research Reports are often cited in studies, they have generally been used to support analysis of individual programmes. In order to research the development of Scottish television drama, I read each Audience Research Report compiled for every Scottish-made or Scottish-set BBC drama between the early 1960s and early 1980s. This meant that I could support my interpretations of audience research into my case studies with reference to documentation for similar productions, noting the recurring patterns and formulations of praise and censure that frequently appear in viewers’ comments. This methodology provided a credible source for establishing the framework of expectations with which viewers approached programmes, and could be equally well applied to many other forms of television made in this period.
I’d like to demonstrate the concrete value of this approach by demonstrating how the Audience Research Reports have enhanced my understanding of three particular programmes, all of which were early attempts to create long-running popular series by the BBC in Scotland. None of these three series survives in its entirety, with This Man Craig, where only two episodes are still known to exist, particularly poorly-represented.
Three popular series from BBC Scotland: 1 – This Man Craig (BBC2 1966-67)
A landmark production for BBC Scotland because of both the scale and location of the programme, This Man Craig told contemporary stories based around a new comprehensive School, set in the fictitious Strathaird (really the outskirts of Glasgow). With John Craig having a keen pastoral interest in his pupils’ problems, the programme was as much concerned with the wider community as school life, with Craig often going outside school to investigate and help children’s troubled families. The series was an early production for the new BBC2 channel, and its 8pm Saturday evening scheduling indicated an intention to attract a broad family audience.
Ten reports were collated for the series, and taken collectively reveal recurrent hopes and interests on the part of its audience. Audiences’ interests were raised in episodes in which Craig went further afield, with location filming, viewers reporting enjoying views of Scottish countryside, especially in a rescue story in which a boy runs away to the highlands. Against this, when stories moved too far away from the school setting viewers started to complain of tenuous stories with “absolutely nothing to do with the basic theme of the series”. One aspect of the school series that particularly interested viewers was the spotlight that it shone on young performers, with each week’s guest lead teenage actor often singled out for praise.
The most striking aspect of the This Man Craig audience research – and invaluable for a series with 50 missing episodes – is that all ten reports include a version of the same argument, a conflicted reaction amongst viewers as to the particular merit and value of the series. This can be encapsulated as a dichotomy between plausibility and empathy, where detractors pick up on what they consider to be contrived and formulaic storytelling, while advocates respond to how much stories have moved them. For example, where the runaway boy highland rescue story was condemned by one viewer for “bordering on the American slush”, for a majority it was regarded as “a heart-warming piece of writing dealing realistically with a matter of child welfare, in which kindness, particularly the kindness shown by members of the Staff of Strathaird School, was the keynote”.Some reports offer a general overview of these competing understandings:
“[I]n some quarters [This Man Craig] was regarded as ‘too good to be true’, and a very ‘rosy coloured’ view of school life; some stories were better than others, it was claimed, but the great majority of the sample obviously agreed that on the whole a high standard had been maintained. It was interesting, they declared, in giving a realistic picture (with a pleasingly ‘gentle’ touch of humour) of the problems of teachers, parents and pupils and their relationships with each other.” (VR 67/195)
Praise for episodes is frequently couched in terms of its human interest, with ‘very moving’ stories always ‘touching on the human side’, although such terms could also be used by the series’ detractors, who found stories “too emotional in approach and treatment to be of more than moderate appeal”. This clear division between head and heart responses is something I don’t think that I would have picked up upon without its constant repetition the Audience Research Reports, and is central to my forming an understanding of how the series might have worked.
Three popular series from BBC Scotland: 2 – The View From Daniel Pike (BBC2 1971-73)
The Clydeside private detective series The View From Daniel Pike presented a bleaker vision of Glasgow than the empathetic This Man Craig. Recurrent adjectives used by approving viewers across the series’ five reports convey a different sense of values – earthy, rugged, meaty, gritty, tough, cruel – a list to which the terms used by disapproving viewers – dour, seedy – could also be easy added.
The values of authenticity that audiences found in the series were embodied in the character of Daniel Pike, and Roddy Macmillan’s performance of the cynical and hard-bitten “tough little haggis-hasher” was recognized as a distinctive deviation from the image of a private detective – ‘far from the usual suavity of such parts’, ‘a refreshing change from the usual detective ‘hero’.
An alarming aspect of audience’s engagement with this series is how viewers associated its most brutal storylines – exploited immigrant labourers, forced evictions, ‘nasty plays about nasty people’ – with the quality of modernity (‘typical of today’). This passage describes the compelling nature of this, sometimes grim, programme upon viewers particularly well:
“a very good, gripping, realistic and topical story, unusual, one or two added, in that ‘the baddies came out on top’. Those who had followed the previous series welcomed the return of Daniel Pike, a well-drawn, ‘believable’ character […] ‘Glad this series is back, good entertainment’; ‘nice and rough for a change; too many “smoothie” crime series’; ‘very much in line with today’s business methods; there was a most pointed moral; ‘very true of modern life… it’s a cruel world’ are examples of varying but appreciative verdicts. Isolated viewers […] were compelled to watch against their non-violent inclinations.” (VR 73/4)
Three popular series from BBC Scotland: 3 – Sutherland’s Law (BBC1 1973-76)
Sutherland’s Law, the most successful of BBC Scotland’s early attempts to create a long-running popular drama series, combined elements of the empathetic community drama of This Man Craig and contemporary crime of Daniel Pike. By making the character of John Sutherland a Procurator Fiscal, a position unique to the Scottish legal system (equivalent to an American District Attorney, or French Examining Magistrate) the series could work as a distinctive hybrid of three types of TV drama: Police, Legal and Community. This distinctly Scottish identity was enhanced through the figure of Sutherland being intrinsically linked within a specific landscape, the Argyll coastal resort of Oban, renamed ‘Glendoran’.
The 15 Audience research reports conducted into Sutherland’s Law comprise a glowing testimony into the effectiveness of this format upon viewers, with all 15 reporting tremendous praise and approval of both the character of Sutherland and Iain Cuthbertson’s performance. It is sometimes hard to tell in there if there is a separation between audience approval of John Sutherland’s attractive qualities of probity and engagement and Iain Cuthbertson himself – “he’s lovely”.
The reports also show how much the expectation of pleasing location settings was central to the appeal of Sutherland’s Law for viewers, frequently mentioning pleasure derived from landscape, appreciated for its own sake as well as the authenticity that it gave, especially when this was justified by a relevant storyline:
“settings were generally considered exceptionally pleasing, Viewers enjoyed the shots in, around and off Oban for their own sake – especially if they happened to know the West Coast; but it was also felt that the outdoor scenes had been very skilfully used to advance the plot”. (VR 72/497)
Viewers often report approvingly that the Scottish scenery distinguishes Sutherland’s Law from other, urban or American, crime series. When editions are confined to the studio or more prosaic locations, their absence is felt with keen disappointment:
“this particular episode failed to ‘grip’. (…) [It] made less use of outside filming than usual (…) and it was partly the lovely natural settings which made Sutherland’s Law so appealing”. (VR 74/562)
Audience research and decoding audience expectations.
Through researching the complete range of reports compiled over twenty years for the whole of Scottish drama, I was able to document the recurring patterns of praise and censure that frequently appeared in viewers’ comments. It is only through detailed study of the complete range of this audience research that one can understand its full implications for reaching a greater understanding of how television drama was experienced by viewers. For example, it is only through observing the frequency with which specific aspects of the programmes are mentioned (attractive sets and costumes or intelligible storylines) that one notices the infrequent occasions where they do not appear, deepening one’s understanding of viewer reaction for that particular programme. Viewers approached many television programmes through a framework of expectations that they had learned to acquire through years of watching other television (as well as through their experience of radio, cinema and theatre), expectations that were rarely articulated. The remarkable extensiveness of the BBC Audience Research collated during this period provides a potentially invaluable source for increasing our understanding of the preconceptions with which people viewed television. A comprehensive overview of this material, that documented the recurring expectations of viewers, explained how these expectations were articulated, and tracked how these arguments developed and mutated between the 1950s and the 1980s as a whole, would form a valuable contribution to television studies.
(Text of paper given at ‘Edinburgh International Film Audiences Conference’, Edinburgh Filmhouse on 30 March 2017)