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By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

April 23, 2020 | 11 min read

At a time of national crisis, public service broadcasters are taking the opportunity to remind the general public that their country needs them. With the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV fighting to stay relevant in a world that is rapidly changing its viewing habits, the time is ripe for them to stand up in our hour of need.

With audiences homebound for the foreseeable future British broadcasters are taking it upon themselves to keep their ears close to the ground and respond to the needs of the nation.

"When things go wrong, it's part of the British DNA to be in it together and to help one another," explains Nathalie Gordon, a freelance creative lead who has done stints at both ITV's agency Uncommon and BBC Creative. "And broadcasters go, right, how do we bring some positivity? Because at the moment, they have a huge role to play in keeping people bloody sane."

In recent years, Channel 4, ITV and the BBC have become exposed to competition for subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms such as Netflix and Disney+, and established broadcasters' capacity to program responsive content - both in the form of programming and public service announcements (PSA) - is helping them win favour with wayward viewers.

'Bringing us closer'

While PSA's by Channel 4, the BBC and ITV have all arrived with the same intention, the end results have been quite different. With the UK government applying a decidedly firm voice to the pandemic, Channel 4's tone is playful and irreverent and the BBC's proudly emotive, while ITV offers a sympathetic antidote to life in lockdown.

"'Bringing us closer' was created to establish the BBC's place in creating social cohesion and a sense of community," explains Helen Rhodes, BBC Creative's executive creative director.

The evocative montage of BBC footage shot during the pandemic is accompanied by the rousing voice of Idris Elba, and aims to put a lump in the throat of viewers at home.

The brand film follows the BBC’s series of ‘Stay at Home’ public information skits released at the beginning of lockdown. To reiterate the Government's message to stay indoors, BBC Creative dusted off iconic clips from its archive, harnessing audiences' love for characters like Alan Partridge and Malcolm Tucker.

Onn Wednesday (22 April), the broadcaster also unveiled 'Bitesize Daily' - a comprehensive learning programme designed to help parents having to home-school their children.

To spread the word, BBC Creative brought together a film with the reassuring message: 'just because the worlds on hold, it doesn't mean your child's education has to be.'

Taking a cheekier approach, the star of Channel 4’s PSA was a perfectly pert bottom, superimposed onto a rotating planet Earth. To encourage the public to keep their bums firmly on couches, Channel 4’s in-house creative agency developed a series of 10-second fly-on-the-wall style films that utilised its roster of stars.

“The project was turned around in 48 hours,” Zaid Al-Qassab, Channel 4’s chief marketing officer shares. “We do have a massive advantage of having an in-house agency and access to talent who helped with their generosity and desire to do good for the country.”

From Jon Snow ironing his collection of vibrant ties, to Big Narstie mowing the lawn, and Krishnan Guru-Murthy sharpening pencils; each 10-second skit works to concisely hit home the message – even Channel 4’s stars are stuck at home, keeping themselves busy doing menial tasks.

“Those clips were turned around in 24 hours. We gave them a tight brief in terms of the time, and the way to shoot, but we gave them a completely open brief in terms of what they would do. It’s genuinely their ideas," Al-Qassab shares.

The reason for the short space of time, Al-Qassab explains, was because the PSA campaign was in response to the insight that some young men were not adhering to the government's message to stay indoors.

"Our aim is to reach groups that are harder to get to," he details. "And Channel 4 is unique in its ability to reach young men effectively as a PSA. So, we deliberately set out to make public service advertising that would make a young, male-skewed audience sit up and notice an important message."

When the lockdown was initially imposed, ITV and its ad-agency Uncommon were the first with their finger on the pulse.

"I think there's a real role for broadcasters and public service broadcasting," states ITV's director of social purpose, Clare Phillips. "We're a public service broadcaster, just like the BBC and Channel Four.

"We all have an ability to reach so many people, and we want to use that scale and that platform to do some good."

Back on 21 March, it paused live TV to bring a message of support to viewers struggling with social distancing. Addressing viewers directly during Saturday Night Takeaway, Ant and Dec took a moment to remind them to stay indoors, keep talking, and look after each other.

The move was part of ITV’s five-year mental wellness campaign, 'Get Britain Talking'. While the next stage was due to launch in May, ITV felt the need to bring it forward and brought this all together in just over a week.

"What I love about this campaign it's got the ability to flex," Philips explains on its expansion during lockdown.

"As time goes on, ITV is reacting to how the nation is feeling, and the issues that they want to talk about," she continues.

Uncommon - ITV

The next stage of the campaign saw ITV go deeper on its original message to get people talking, by pointing them towards who might need it most.

Imitating a phone’s contact list, the copy in the simple print ads challenged viewers to think about people that might need them right now and to look to the device in their hands to make the difference.

And last week (16 April), ITV halted the transmission of ‘Claps for Carers’ to deliver a poignant message from those working against the coronavirus on the NHS frontline. The tribute saw NHS workers thank the UK public for staying indoors, as well as offering their support and love during this national crisis.

Broadcast v SVOD

“I'm very surprised Netflix hasn't done something. People talk about completing Netflix, nobody talks about completing the BBC,” points out Gordon. The state broadcaster had spent recent months fighting off existential threats, with commentators hinting that the organisation may not be sustainable in its current form. Last year, Ofcom warned it risked losing a ‘generation of viewers’ after it was revealed that less than half of young people now watch its TV channels.

“It's a difficult time for the BBC because people are talking about how it's irrelevant, and they don't want it anymore,” shares Gordon. “So, it's important for them to put those messages out there as well to just remind people that the BBC is that for them.”

“We’re much more capable of understanding the state of our audience and the mood of the nation than an SVOD can,” argues Mike Lean, BBC Creative planning director. “We feel the role of the broadcaster during this time is to change the story, and it felt like an amazing opportunity to play our part and give the nation what they need most in the most difficult times. That’s always been the role of the BBC.”

It is the same message shared by Al-Qassad. “You can’t get responsive content from SVOD in a time of need like this, but you can from Channel 4,” he contends. “We’re responding to the need of the moment. That is something you do as a public service broadcaster, that others wouldn’t do.”

“You wouldn’t expect them to, and they’re not capable of doing it. We’re much closer to the population and we’re more responsive to it.”

Last August, Channel 4’s chief exec, Alex Mahon, joked of the challenge it faced from ‘Netflix and porn’ for the attention of younger audiences. Her comment reflected a growing acceptance among senior TV execs that this lost generation were unlikely to embrace scheduled television.

Yet, at the beginning of April, Channel 4 unveiled research that showed it had experienced an upsurge in youth consumption. In particular, 44% of 16-34s claim to be watching even more TV.

The research also revealed that TV remains a trusted source, with 82% of 16-34s admitting they trust TV for information on Covid-19. This compared to 63% for newspapers and just 41% for social media, where 64% say they have read or seen fake news about Covid-19.

And earlier this week (20 April) it revealed that All4 had achieved its highest number of quarterly views ever across Q1 of the year. Views during the nation’s first two weeks in lockdown increased by a significant 37% compared with the same period the year before.

Ensuring the right tone

Given the pandemic is no laughing matter, there is a thin line to walk between lightening the mood with humour and coming across tone-deaf.

Knowing that record numbers of people are sat on their laptops at home with little else to do than pass judgement, it is a hard task to produce work that will not ruffle any feathers – particularly in the time frame.

Al-Qassab explains that “any good piece of advertising starts with good insight. There is no shortcut for that. We understand our irreverent tone well and we’re allowed by the public to be that one step cheekier.”

While the government has applied a stern voice to get the message across, “with the brand film, we wanted to have something that was hopeful, with a reassuring message no matter how hard it is, we’ll come through together,” explains Helen Rhodes, BBC Creative executive creative director.

“Striking that balance is important. You want to acknowledge the difficulties that people are experiencing whilst having a positive message.”

The BBC differs from Channel 4 and ITV in that it must look upon its work with a decidedly neutral lens.

“The BBC’s focus is on impartiality. When it talks as a brand, it must pay close attention to it,” explains Gordon. “Tonally, the brand film is a little more serious than it usually goes for. It usually avoids serious, because it is easy to stray more heavily from one to the other side – and it has to be so in the middle. Plus, there is no mention of the government.”

Lean reckons that is one of the benefits of focusing on the audience in its brand film, as it means the BBC is not talking about itself. “It gets trickier when the focus is on us because there will be that tug-of-war between different sides. It's like how we handled the election – we make it about our audiences,“ he says.

By the end of lockdown – whenever it ends – Channel4, ITV and the BBC are likely to emerge with their public perception changed. And while consumers question the relevancy of public service broadcasters in the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, the pandemic has offered broadcasters a leading role in the national conversation.

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