Teaching TV people the craft of instant appeal

James Murphy finds the Edinburgh International Television Festival receptive to his ideas on how to snare viewers quickly.

Teaching TV people the craft of instant appeal

TV ads generally have 30 seconds or less to tell a story and sell a brand. OK, they sometimes have production budgets that would make a TV drama department weep with envy, but there's no doubt agencies have a knack of grabbing viewers' attention quickly. So Adam & Eve/DDB's chief executive, James Murphy, was invited up to the Edinburgh International Television Festival to discuss "The First Ten Minutes" - how to capture viewers and hold them from the moment a show starts. Here, he writes about the debate.

Convention dictates that programme-makers see advertisers as their venal and very prodigal siblings. The assembled scriptwriters, producers and directors at the TV festival make programmes people love to watch - we interrupt them with ads that are, at best, seductive but uninvited and, at worst, crass, spiritually and creatively bankrupt attempts to brainwash.

However, putting aside any such prejudices, someone had decided that adland might have something to say about how to make audiences fall in love with TV content, and quickly - and, perhaps, what lessons could be learned from the world of advertising.

On the panel and in discussions afterwards, it was clear that programme-makers exist in an industry at least as ruthless and swift in its judgments as ours. They endure a tortuous and prolonged pre-production process: conceiving ideas, selling them to the commissioning editor, scripting, countless redrafting and, finally, gaining approval for production against pretty steep odds.

Then, when the production mill cranks up, they face director amends (sometimes radical) and changes on set as leading actors refuse to deliver dialogue. There's further tinkering in the editing, re-editing and final approval for airing. But only then does the real test occur - TV production's equivalent of the Millward Brown AI score: how are the ratings?

If the ratings aren't immediately good, programmes are at the mercy of schedulers working on a hair-trigger - fail to attract the right size and type of audience quickly and that primetime 9pm cop show that took three years to produce will be unceremoniously shunted down the schedule, to a lesser time, a lesser day of the week or, God forbid, a second-string channel.

This is a self-fulfilling, vicious circle and, once a programme is relegated like this, several things suffer: its ability to gain any momentum, its likelihood of being recommissioned and, ultimately, the reputations of the programme-makers.

So what would advertisers have to offer on this subject? Well, put simply, grabbing an audience quickly is what we do, and the idea of worrying about the first ten minutes of a programme feels like a flabby luxury.

During a lively session with plenty of audience participation, the programme-makers on stage showed clips of their shows, and I did the equivalent of dropping an emotional dirty bomb by showing John Lewis' "always a woman". It elicited a surprisingly immediate and powerful ovation. This was interesting from an audience as worldly and aware as this one, but from the discussion that ensued, it was clear that the dark arts and crafts of advertising may have something to offer programme-makers. This included:

Reductivism - Ad people are probably the masters of this - distilling an emotive idea to its essence and then making it super-compelling in a very limited time. We deliver storylines in seconds.

Insight - The best advertising has humanity because it understands its audience and can make the most slender and commercial subject matter connect. The insight of planners and creatives can reveal something that an audience can utterly relate to, making the obvious and everyday both poignant and riveting.

Music - One tribute on the death of the legendary US songwriter Hal David said that he could write a whole movie in a three-minute song. The Edinburgh session discussed the possibilities for powerful and emotive soundtracks to make their stories capture an audience quickly, in the way ads use music to condense and deliver the moral and meaning of a story.

Letting the viewer complete the circle - Some of the most powerful ads don't spoon-feed viewers, but intrigue and reward them. They earn themselves deeper involvement and, often, a desire to be watched again and, in the social age, be shared and commented on.

Characters - Skilled ad-makers establish their characters as people an audience can identify with, not just quickly, but often without any dialogue or opportunity for plot development. When it's done badly, it can be about clumsy stereotypes, but, done well, you have long-running franchises such as Axe, Foster's and perhaps even the BT flatmates.

Situations - Ads work speedily to establish location, occasion and, most potently, a dilemma that an audience can see themselves in and want to resolve.

Aesthetics - The session discussed the use of filmic techniques, (period) detail, styling, sound design and atmosphere to create instant appeal in shows. Again, an area in which ad-makers reign supreme.

The conclusion may not be that the opening of a show should be treated to the same reductivist rigour as an ad, but it is clear that there are elements of ad craft that can make those crucial early minutes compelling. No wonder, then, that ad creatives such as Peter Souter (TBWA's new chairman) and Jonathan Thake (ex-HHCL) have had their dramas and comedies aired by major broadcasters.

And, as the programme-makers attested, in a multiscreen, non-linear, increasingly PVR and social-dominated TV world, if you're not very good, viewers will be leaving long before the end credits and dishing out a drubbing on Twitter.

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