Media: `I'm not prudish, but...'

Forget the ratings - there is a far better way to discover what viewers really think. Jane Robins unravels the secrets of the duty log
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The Independent Culture
Viewers of the cult Countdown quiz programme are a fairly passive bunch most of the time - but when they suspect that Carol Vorderman has got her sums wrong, dozens feel compelled to leap from their armchairs and make that call to Channel 4.

Audiences of 15 to One, another daytime quiz show, are similarly prone to rush to their telephones in response to a stimulus. "When they believe that the channel has made a mistake, and given a wrong answer, they call immediately," says a C4 spokesman. "It is striking that many people simply won't believe that we are right and they are wrong."

The BBC believes it will receive around a million calls from viewers and listeners this year, C4 is likely to notch up about 200,000, and all of them will be recorded on a document which has become an integral part of broadcasters' lives, but which audiences never see - the daily duty log.

"When I first arrived at C4 I used to be obsessed by the log, reading it all every morning," says chief press officer Matt Baker. His interest is shared by most of those who receive these duty logs throughout the main broadcasting companies. That's because the log is seldom a thoughtless string of abuse, or an enthused stream of praise. As a document, it reflects people's emotional responses to television - it reveals the things which motivate them to break off from passive viewing and call the network rather than just complain or comment to a member of the family.

Unsurprisingly, scheduling changes provoke the strongest reactions in viewers' because, it is supposed, they interfere so rudely with viewer expectations. When the tennis at Wimbledon overruns, hundreds of people call the BBC. And it is well known, within the corporation, that any tampering with the scheduling of Star Trek will produce large numbers of angry calls.

However, by far the greatest proportion of callers, about 70% at the BBC, are simply seeking information such as the name of an actor, the name of some title music, or whether something is available on video. These calls need responses, and the corporation has spent the past few months beefing up its system for dealing with them. Since May, all its calls have been "out-sourced" to a private company, Capita, which operates a call centre in Belfast. When the BBC unveils its annual list of corporate "promises" to the public next week, it will include a commitment to improve the quality of responses to requests for information.

From a programme maker's viewpoint, the duty log gives them something that ratings figures or even the "audience appreciation index" cannot match - a sense of the texture of responses, an indication of both the range and even the tone of reaction.

Stephen Whittle, director of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, tells networks if they have seriously offended a significant number of people. He said: "Broadcasters know that if about 10 people call on a taste-and-decency issue they have hit a raw nerve. Most people, even if offended, don't call."

When C4 recently broadcast the drama Queer As Folk, which was controversially packed with underage gay sex, the calls came in their hundreds. But they were not simply the fuming collection of outrage that some programme makers had feared. They actually included many congratulatory calls. Most of the time, most people feel no need to praise a programme, but this one seemed to prompt a feeling in viewers that the channel might be in need of support in the face of criticism for making the drama.

The debate sparked by Queer as Folk was not simply of a mindless "get this rubbish off our screens" nature. Instead, it revealed different sorts of responses within the gay community, from appreciation of a "positive" programme about gays, to assertions that it misrepresented most, distinctly less promiscuous, gay lifestyles.

There is nothing scientific about the log, but within a broadcasting company it serves many functions. At one level, it can lift the spirits of a news producer when, over breakfast, he reads that three people in the Midlands called in to praise his report on East Timor (away from the celebrity circuit there is remarkably little feedback for many of the people who actually produce the television which we see).

The log can also throw light on specific campaigns - the sort that can begin when Radio 4 listeners take issue with a new afternoon programme and become determined to complain away until the channel controller caves in.

At times, there seem to be organised bombardments of the log - one BBC editor says he suspected this was happening during the 1992 general election when John Major was interviewed and, immediately afterwards, the lines were jammed with complaints that the questioning was biased. The oddity here was that the callers were mostly had the same opinion. Usually such occasions generate a lot of calls but they disagree about which way the bias went.

The BBC says taste and decency complaints account for only one per cent of calls but they furnish the log with some of its best nuggets, such as complaints about "nakedness at teatime" on The Human Body, or a debate about whether Harry Enfield should really have done a comedy spoof on the sinking of the Titanic.

WHAT THE PUBLIC TOLD CHANNEL 4 ABOUT `QUEER AS FOLK'

`I hope to God, C4 isn't falling into the cesspools of Manchester clubs. We don't want to be portrayed as sex maniacs - that doesn't represent my life. We need a programme that presents normal gay life without sex.'

Male caller

`I have no hang-ups about sexuality - my dad was bisexual. However, there is a time and place for everything and I wouldn't want to watch this tonight for entertainment; these things are personal and intimate.'

Female caller

`I shall be writing to Mr Blair and my MP. You are promoting filth.'

Female caller

`I'd like to congratulate C4 for its initiative in presenting a programme that is representative of Britain.'

Male caller

`I object to the subject matter and the revolting trailer. Children watch this... and when they see these things they like to try them out. C4 is disgusting.'

Female caller

`What is this programme about? Is it suitable for me to watch?'

Boy caller, aged 11. (C4 advised him that it was possibly not suitable and that he should ask his parents' permission to view)

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