MEDIA: Psst! So you want a guaranteed ratings hit? Just call us

Television's new gurus of market research claim that success is a formula. Meg Carter wonders about, ahem, creativity

Recipe for television success. Take one household name. Add a proven programme format. Blend in a popular idea. Commission research to prove viewers will watch. Serve up your programme proposal. Garnish with an audience guarantee. Easy.

So easy, indeed, that Angela Harbutt, research and development director of the TV airtime sales house TSMS, claims it could become standard practice for the industry within a year. "Whether or not a programme is commissioned will increasingly depend on audience guarantees," she says. Moreover, Ms Harbutt and her number-crunchers believe they know how to get those guarantees: she says research can accurately predict potential public interest in a topic, programme genre or even star.

TSMS already does this for a number of broadcasters, including Meridian and Anglia, assessing programmes' likely ratings performances by subject, genre and talent. It also evaluates scripts and can arrange "focus groups" - rounding up and interviewing members of the public. "Just as we study programmes and can identify common factors for success, we can take one step back and look at a script for strong characters and plot," Ms Harbutt says. "Even at script stage it's possible to identify danger zones: tired themes and the like. Research offers a solid programme-making tool, as increasingly channels commission by presenter or star, and the marketing of a programme hangs on that choice, too. Take Cadfael. Research persuaded the makers to keep the glamour and mystery of the medieval setting and play down the rats and rotting vegetables."

She cites The Knock and Turnaround as two recent programmes commissioned to deliver a particular audience that was not watching ITV drama. Schedulers regularly use research to predict the type of audience that might be interested in a show, she says. From this month, programme-makers can do the same, as TSMS makes its services available to them for the first time.

TSMS has the support of Pact, the independent producers' association. Until now, independents have been at a disadvantage, Pact says. They are unable to gain full access to Barb (Broadcasters' Audience Research Board) data that include Audience Indices, a measure of viewer appreciation available only to Barb's subscribers.

Broadcasters fiercely guard their research findings, fearful of giving rivals a competitive edge. But there is evidence that pre-broadcast research is employed comprehensively, if quietly. "ITV, Channel 4, the BBC - we're all doing it. The battle is to ensure its influence does not get out of hand," says one ITV source. John Bishop, controller of entertainment at Carlton UK, agrees: "We are much more research-oriented than we used to be, and this is reflected across all our programming." But, he adds quickly, research is employed "merely as a tool" to identify target audiences.

But does such research work? "It's absolute nonsense," says Paul Knight, a leading drama producer whose credits include London's Burning and The Knock. Mr Knight eschews all forms of pre-broadcast research. "Making a TV show is - and has to be - down to what you feel is instinctively right." London's Burning consistently achieves top audience-appreciation indices - "a fact I find out only after the programmes are filmed and aired".

In the US, broadcasters have been pre-testing concepts for decades. There, film studios regularly shoot different endings, which are screened in front of audiences before the final cut (though readjustedmovies that test "through the roof" still go out on release and flop). And TV companies rank stars by a system known as TVQs, under which Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman's Jane Seymour outranks Glenn Close.

"Everyone wants to evaluate their risk in advance," explains Michael Clark, director of TV at the advertising agency Leo Burnett. But this has led to "lowest common denominator" TV. He says: "One of the main reasons why there is a lot of ordinary television in the US is because people rely on numbers, with only limited creative input."

Mr Knight fears that creative input would be the first casualty of adopting research wholesale: "When used as a tool, research is usually about procrastination - when a broadcaster can't make up its mind." There is some value in research after a show has been made, he adds. "But even then you can never believe everything these people say. Their sphere of influence is small, their questions selective and loaded."

Even Ms Harbutt admits research can be misused. "There is a danger people will use it to excess," she says. "And it certainly won't make a bad idea good." Also, it can fail to spot a gem. "Qualitative research of whether Robbie Coltrane would work as Cracker would almost certainly have come out negative before production. Research groups are notoriously unimaginative."

A Sunday night peak-time drama based around the exploits of a bunch of hookers hardly sounds like a recipe for ratings success, but it worked and already a second series is planned. Luckily, ITV followed gut instinct with Band of Gold. Time will tell whether research works as well.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower