Marketing savvy makes Big Brother so watchable

Big Brother and Caribbean Summer have shown how imaginative integration of programming and marketing can result in a smash hit, writes Torin Douglas

One of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Television Festival was a heated spat in the session on marketing between Channel 4’s director of strategy David Brook and his successor as Channel 5’s marketing director, Jim Hytner. Both were sharp and witty, scoring points off each other to the audience’s delight. But the difference between the two presentations was the content.

With Channel 4’s Big Brother and Caribbean Summer, Brook has demonstrated that skilful marketing can not only boost the audience and image of a programme. It can actually transform a programming idea into something much bigger – to the extent that it is hard to tell where the programme ends and the marketing begins.

Once, that might have been seen as sinister. In some hands, it still would be, evoking thoughts of the Independent Television Commission’s dreaded phrase, “undue prominence”. But on Channel 4 this summer, the fusion of marketing and programming has produced real benefits, turning relatively straightforward programme ideas into major events that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

For Big Brother, the PR and interactive Web activity (showing live pictures from cameras in the house) have played a crucial part in turning the series into must-see television, with audiences peaking at over 6 million – a huge figure for Channel 4.

The decision to acquire Big Brother, in the face of competition from Channel 5, was taken by director of programmes Tim Gardam and commissioning editor Liz Warner. Brook says it was a courageous decision, not least because of the amount of airtime required to do the programme properly. “They asked me if it was something we could get behind in terms of marketing and interactive resources, and I said it was perfect for that,” he says. “The website is extending the TV experience – it has become one of the highest-traffic sites in the country.”

But how does Channel 4 benefit? Certainly not financially, as Brook admits: “At this stage, it’s about creating communities of interest, rather than immediate financial benefits. But it’s also part of the overall marketing of the programme which has helped produce these great audience figures.”

The marketing has involved far more than the usual posters, press and PR – though these have all been used very effectively. Daily e-mails to the press – updates on the inmates’ progress – and the gradual winning over of the tabloids (and then the broadsheets), thanks to the antics of Nasty Nick, have kept the programme top of mind for the media and the audience.

Brook is particularly pleased with the poster on top of the Big Brother house, showing the “eyes” logo. Is it marketing, or is it part of the programme – and does it matter?

Brook is riled by comments – made by Hytner in Edinburgh, among others – that the show is tacky and is watched by a downmarket audience. He says it has produced a high ABC1 profile and is still attracting 6 million viewers, even after the departure of Nasty Nick.

Channel 4’s second case history is, in many ways, even more instructive. Its Caribbean Summer, fusing coverage of the England-West Indies test series with Caribbean music, a week of documentaries and various off-screen activities, was Brook’s own proposal.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” wrote the great West Indian CLR James, and it’s a thought that has underpinned the Caribbean Summer – and at least one of its on-air promotions. By knitting together the cricket and multi-cultural TV programming (described recently as two of the more moribund areas of television), the channel has sparked new life into both.

When Channel 4 wrested the cricket rights from the BBC two years ago, it not only introduced new ways of covering the game, but also promised to help market cricket to a new, younger and more multicultural audience. It pledged &£13m over four years on marketing and &£2m on grassroots initiatives.

This season – the second – has shown that promise coming to fruition. The striking Caribbean Union Jack poster has had a huge impact, although it has also provoked rabid phone calls and letters to Channel 4. During the lunch intervals at Lord’s, Headingley and the Oval, there have been Caribbean bands playing on the outfield – including, last Thursday, the Wailers. And away from the grounds, there have been other events designed to shed cricket’s elitist image and win new enthusiasts to the game, including “beach parties” in the Old Trafford car park and on Clapham Common, complete with two tons of sand and a portable swimming pool.

But perhaps the most significant of Channel 4’s initiatives has been the launch of a feasibility study for a new cricket ground in the borough of Lambeth, to encourage the game’s grassroots. The Oval itself is the borough’s only ground, and ten cricket clubs have nowhere locally to play. Last week, Sir Viv Richards and the West Indian cricket team visited Brixton for a youth coaching day to launch the project, in conjunction with Lambeth and Surrey County Cricket Club.

Even Michael Jackson, Channel 4’s chief executive, is now a cricket fan. When he was controller of BBC2, he valued the test match highlights so highly that he put them on after midnight. But last Thursday he was to be found at the Oval, hosting a box.

Cricket must be getting cool.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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