THE SECRET of successful television drama, the Holy Grail for TV producers, has been revealed. The key to maximum ratings is, it seems, deceptively simple: a rural setting, a former soap actor as the star and promotional trailers full of sex.
Edinburgh Television Festival was told this weekend that programmes stand the best chance of garnering high ratings if producers stick to this simple formula.
The guidelines were outlined at a drama workshop held by Tony Marchant, writer of the BBC's Bafta-winning series Holding On, Corinne Hollingworth, the original producer of EastEnders, and Ian Parker, The Observer's television critic and Granada's head of PR.
Mr Marchant revealed that his series, which had no soap stars and a grim urban setting, achieved its best rating when the trailer for the fifth episode in the series deliberately played up the sexual content of the episode.
The trailer, which ran in the week before the episode, concentrated only on characters kissing each other - and it lifted ratings by almost half- a-million viewers.
"It has become known as the `shagging episode'," Mr Marchant told the workshop audience. "And it did deal with a lot of sexual scenes, but trailers are important. We had lost a week of trailers before the series started because it was just when Diana had died and the BBC pulled the trailers until after her funeral. We got lower ratings for the series than we had expected."
But the key to higher ratings, the panellists claimed, is the casting of a popular soap star.
Ms Hollingworth asked: "How big a success would Our Mutual Friend have been without Anna Friel in it? It was a BBC2 period drama, but it had a very good tabloid property in it, which was very helpful."
Sally Ryle, head of press at Granada Television, admitted: "Who is in it is the first question and is everything to ITV. When Heartbeat was launched, Nick Berry was all we had to flog it on. But we could say we have Wicksy from EastEnders. Using your stars in programme PR is all about bringing the right horse to the right water."
Another departed EastEnders star, Michelle Collins, has been snapped up for a role in a major BBC comedy drama about holiday reps.
The actress, 35, was furious when EastEnders producers plotted to kill off her popular character, Cindy Beale, next month. But she is now swapping chilly Albert Square for three months in Cyprus as the star of Sunburn.
Cindy and Tiffany Mitchell, also to be killed off shortly when the actress Martine McCutcheon leaves the long-running soap, were two of the biggest ratings boosters, Collins said.
Nick Berry duly brought the viewers to Heartbeat, but the other key ingredient of the series was its rural setting. Peak Practice and countless veterinary and medical shows have all benefited from the British love of the countryside, said the panel.
"Something like Heartbeat creates its own self-contained world," said Ian Parker. This allows viewers and writers to stay within the same well- established fantasy landscape.
The panel agreed that what did not affect ratings was the opinion of television critics. "In fact, it works the other way around," said Mr Marchant. "For Holding On it was important that the critical reaction to it was good, because the ratings weren't great.
"It is as if there are two types of television drama success. In the broadsheets, the shorthand for a success is `award-winning'; in the tabloids, the shorthand is `big rating'."
The BBC had expected around 3 million viewers for Holding On, but it peaked at just 2 million and averaged around 1.5 million. However, the series won the Bafta and Royal Television Society awards for Best Drama last year.
Producers on the lookout for popular stars as well as critical kudos may shortly be spoilt for choice. The new EastEnders executive producer, Matthew Robinson, has already decided to sweep away ten of his cast in a major spruce-up.
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