In my work with broadcasters I’ve often been to the Edinburgh International Television Festival at the end of August. It’s a glossy, lavish combination of lectures (Al Gore), masterclasses (Stephen Poliakoff), interviews with channel controllers and of course a whole lot of networking. But in all the years I’ve been there hasn’t been a single panel, lecture or discussion about the audience.
This might seem strange. After all, the audience is what makes television — certainly commercial television — possible. And they’re changing fast. Demographic shifts, technological shifts and radical changes in household structure are all having huge impacts on the way we watch — and how it’s measured. But in reality discussion of the audience is generally confined to the research department, which finds out who they are, and the sales department, which figure out how much they’re worth. Visit most television companies and the walls are plastered with pictures of programmes and stars, but there’s almost no evidence at all of who might be watching them.
Of course, when you work in television, the audience is always elsewhere. If you work at ITV’s South Bank studios you might walk past the queue for the Jeremy Kyle show, but it’s generally possible to spend an entire career in television without ever having to mingle with the viewers. In theatre it’s very different. The audience is right there in the room each night, and can often have a profound effect or interaction with what’s happening on stage. But even in theatre is there enough discussion of its role — and its potential? In an increasingly networked, interactive culture, how are audiences’ expectations changing, and how should artists best respond?
This article gives an interesting account of a recent debate on the issue between some of mainstream theatre’s leading directors, while at CPT this week Apocryphal Theatre are presenting a show that changes every night, involving and engaging with the audience throughout. There’s also an interesting piece by Mark Lawson on the mantra of participation here. Whether the show is a traditional fourth wall drama or, like Punchdrunk’s Christmas performance, a completely one-to-one experience, there’s no right or wrong answer, but theatre’s willingness to engage in the debate should be an encouragement to television, and may help point some way forward. Finally, here’s a quote from Peter Handke, author of The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, on his own ambitions for performance:
“The prime purpose of theatre is … not to produce illusions for an audience, but rather to produce audiences out of a special kind of encounter.”