We are all in the Tellytribes

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The Independent Online
BEHIND THE review of the BBC's news programmes lies a fresh approach to assessing audiences, based on the idea that Britain is better understood by observing that we are all members of "tribes" rather than of social classes.

Invented by David Docherty, the deputy director of BBC Television, the notion reflects the stated intention of television executives to "get under the skin of Britain in a more interesting way".

It starts by throwing out theidea that we are all As, Bs, C1s or C2s and instead asks people about their "life-stages", and equates them with age. A television executive might ask - what do young married mothers want from television? Or, for that matter, single male pensioners or teenage girls?

Next, society is split into social communities, such as ethnic minorities, Scots or the disabled. And then the tribal analysis asks what things people are passionate about, and divides them into communities of interest, so those with a passion for sport are separated from homes-and-gardens fanatics, and science buffs.

Unsurprisingly, most of us fall into several tribes. Earlier this year BBC executives were moaning that there were nearly as many identified tribes as there were programmes, and that the number, which had escalated to more than 100, needed to be cut down to 30 or so.

The pruning process has since been under way, and the development of the tribal idea has run alongside the Corporation's news review process.

Helen Boaden, the BBC's new head of weekly programmes, was instrumental in putting together the strategy document. She says the tribes approach revealed that the BBC needed to improve its services for young mothers, young men, and to some degree for young people generally.

The category that critics call the "superserved", and the BBC terms its "heartland" audience, includes slightly older, middle-class people, and there remains a slight bias to the south of England.

But the strategy review is not a simple reflection of what the tribes of Britain want from their news. Seventy BBC journalists were assigned to the committees that have been working for 18 months on sorting out news, and more than 7,500 viewers and listeners were consulted. Ms Boaden points out that no management consultants were involved in the process, a rarity in a BBC that has recently been full of young McKinsey men in grey suits telling programme makers that their capacity utilisation rates are too low.

Also, Ms Boaden acknowledges, it is not good enough to build a strategy on what people say they want. Very often they act differently, and, in any case, there needs to be room for journalistic innovation.

The main benefit of the tribes approach is that it is more detailed than conventional class-based analysis, but, as an analytical tool, it is unproven. The success or otherwise of the BBC's news strategy will be the first indicator of whether tribes are to become a long-term feature of programme analysis, or are just the latest fad.