It’s pointless trying to divide up and second-guess audiences. Just create high-quality television and let us choose for ourselves
Should the BBC be making more programmes specifically targeted at older viewers? Responding to a letter accusing the corporation of taking older viewers for granted, the audience services department (on behalf of senior management) said that, in their opinion, the over-50s actually had varied tastes, so were encouraged to enjoy shows made for a “general audience”.
That wasn’t good enough for DCMS chair Julian Knight, who declared that many people feel “the BBC has left them behind”, while, in contrast, writer Charlie Higson has said that the BBC was “forever tying itself in knots about the ageing demographic of its viewers” and stereotyping them by programming gardening shows and documentaries about tanks. It’s also notable that BBC Three is getting an extra £40 million for its terrestrial reboot, with a schedule “aimed at audiences 16-34”, while BBC Four becomes a repeats channel.
But is the viewing audience really that simply – or starkly – divided? I think it’s eminently more sensible to make programming for that so-called “general audience” rather than fretting about demographic targets or second-guessing audience preferences in such an offhand, even patronising, way.
One of the big hits of lockdown, BBC Three’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, might seem a prime example of “yoof” telly, as a coming-of-age drama centring on two teenagers navigating love, sex, family and education. Yet only 5m of the record 16.2m viewers in its first week were from that 16-34 group; the other two-thirds were older viewers.
And that makes perfect sense. You don’t need to be a teenager right now to be able to understand adolescent experience; we’ve all gone through it. Nor do you need to match the characters’ age in order to appreciate a sensitively crafted, beautifully performed piece of drama. If anything, it might be a more powerful watch with an added wistful nostalgia. Certainly, Rooney’s readership wasn’t confined to young adulthood, even as many labelled her a “millennial” voice.
The same applies to other lockdown favourites, like The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. By November 2020, over 62m households had tuned in to watch the exploits of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, not just those of a similarly tender age. And of the 9m-plus consolidated viewers who enjoyed ITV’s Quiz, about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’s “Coughing Major”, 1.5m were aged 16-34, even though this was based on a scandal that took place before many of them were born.
It just goes to show that you can’t pigeon-hole viewers – and it’s foolish to try. What we really want is quality entertainment, and if it touches on a universal experience or emotion, then of course it will appeal to people of all ages. The best television doesn’t divide us; it unites us. And never have we needed that more than in this past difficult year, with many separated from loved ones or living in isolation.
The prime example of that is the BBC’s Saturday night staple, Strictly Come Dancing. The show has long prided itself on its wide viewership, from small children through to grandparents and everyone in between. A mammoth 13m tuned in to see Bill Bailey lift the glitterball trophy last December, and a version of the show plays in 60 countries around the world.
Yet on paper, Strictly hardly seemed like a sure bet – and certainly not a programme that anyone under the age of 80 would care about. Ditto The Great British Bake Off, which would also fail a box-ticking judgement by demographics-focussed execs now.
But every time the BBC tries to second-guess its decision-making, based on targets and trends, it trips up. See the – in hindsight – ludicrous decision to turn down the reboot of All Creatures Great and Small in case it didn’t appeal to younger viewers. What an own goal: producer Colin Callender has since reported that the show (a ratings hit for Channel 5) has actually done well with younger audiences. Of course, the latter group don’t have the issue of comparing it to the BBC original – they can just enjoy a well-made, picturesque drama that provides comfort viewing in dark times.
The salient lesson: commit to programmes with sincerity, talent, passion and daring, and let us do the rest. In a crowded TV marketplace, it’s the shows with their own identity – rather than those designed to please – that stand the test of time, whether your viewers are spring chickens or golden oldies.