FEATURE1 October 2011

Centre of attention


Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings triggered a huge response in terms of viewing figures and word-of-mouth buzz. Robert Bain hears how the broadcaster combined surveys with social media monitoring to dissect the show’s impact.


Big Fat Gypsy Weddings entered the nation’s consciousness in an explosion of pink taffeta last year. A one-off Channel 4 documentary opened a window on a community that most people don’t usually see, with its deep-rooted traditions, lavish celebrations and, most memorably of all, huge dresses. The programme was a surprise success, attracting more than three times the average number of viewers for its time slot, generating massive amounts of word of mouth and media interest, and picking up an award for most groundbreaking show at the Cultural Diversity Awards.

Channel 4 quickly commissioned a five-episode series to follow, plus a special to coincide with the royal wedding. It also commissioned research agency Brand Driver to study how viewers were engaging with the programme. Because of its public service remit, the broadcaster was interested in understanding not only how entertaining people found the show, but also the influence it was having on perceptions of the little-understood and much maligned gypsy and traveller communities.

“Because the show was getting such attention, we immediately felt there was an opportunity to look at what was happening in social media”

Karen Wise, Brand Driver

Under the spotlight
Viewing figures for the series, which aired in January and February, peaked at nearly ten million, making it the fifth most watched show in Channel 4’s history. As a result, the findings from the research on Big Fat Gypsy Weddings were eagerly anticipated. Channel 4’s brand and corporate research manager James Guerrier told Research: “The commissioning teams are very interested in finding what elements of the programme made it so successful. Marketing teams are interested because the programme has been recommissioned for another series next year, so we hope that we can make it even bigger. So within Channel 4 there was quite a lot of scrutiny on this research.”

Karen Wise, managing director of Brand Driver, wanted to tap into the buzz the show was creating. “The priority was getting some nice robust data to look at issues about awareness of the community and understanding of its issues,” she said. “But because the show was getting such attention, we immediately felt there was an opportunity to do something else with it as well – looking at what was happening in social media. That would allow us another dimension to understand what was going on.”

As well as online surveys in the days after the show went out, Brand Driver had a team of six watch the final episode live and monitor what people were saying online. The study looked at comments on Twitter, on the programme’s official Facebook page and on the public forums of entertainment news site Digital Spy.

Although the vast amounts of data available creates a temptation to research social media quantitatively, Wise says it remains “a very qualitative area”. In this instance a quant survey was also used “just to provide this extra level of illumination and insight”. And by monitoring activity in real time Brand Driver was able to see how particular moments in the show triggered people to comment.

Social media measurement, Guerrier says, is still “a bit of a wild west” and Channel 4, like so many other organisations, is in the process of working out how best to use it. “I think the social media monitoring tools that are out there on the market are largely quite good at tracking the volume, the total number of comments and things that people are talking about. They’re not so good at the semantic analysis: what are people are saying? That’s where human intervention can really help.”

In that sense the Big Fat Gypsy Weddings project was a “useful stepping stone”, and a response to the fact that clients are on social media whether their research teams like it or not. Guerrier said: “In a world where the people who make the programmes, the commissioning editors, are sitting there watching television with Twitter open looking at what people are saying, there’s a big role for people like us to moderate and filter that information, and pull it together in a sensible way.”

Channel 4 was interested not only in how entertaining people found the show, but also in the influence it was having on perceptions of the gypsy and traveller communities

Extremes of opinion
The survey showed that the programme was generally well received, with viewers saying they found it entertaining, funny and thought-provoking (see box below). People also praised it for “making them aware of a society that they didn’t necessarily know existed, and even if they did, they didn’t quite understand,” says Guerrier.

Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has been one of Channel 4’s most talked about programmes this year, and you can’t generate that sort of response without some of it being negative – both about the show itself and the people it portrayed. There was a perception, echoed loudly in some sections of the press, that the programme makers had exploited or misrepresented their subjects for entertainment. But Channel 4’s research suggested this view was not very common among viewers.

Comparing the survey results with the discussions that took place in the various social media settings helped to put the findings in context – and it’s hard to think of a better case study to observe these differences than a sensational, provocative show like Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

The quantitative survey, Guerrier said, was “how we get a really robust read”, but tracking unsolicited online comments too helped to reveal the extremes and illustrate the factors that were shaping word-of-mouth discussions. “When we’re asking people within that survey, we’re getting an individual response which they’re able to think through. When you’re looking at what people are saying on social networks, it’s different because although they’re still individuals, they’re kind of broadcasting it out. There’s a slight tendency, we found, to be more controversial in the things you say, to try and stir things up or sound a bit cool.”

Wise agrees. “It allowed us to have this very uninfluenced response where people really had no sense of being watched or listened to in any way. And it did, because of that, come up with a very different type of engagement with the programme than we saw from quantitative results where there was more of a considered response. Some of the sentiment was probably the same, but the language was more extreme – people were very aggressive, using lots of swear words or whatever, and I think that is an element of performance. I think there’s a little bit of showing off.

“In the survey we probably saw more people either being very positive or sitting in the middle, whereas some of the things that surfaced on social media were extremely negative. Whether that was to be provocative or whether it’s just illustrative of the people that were participating we don’t know, but it certainly uncovered something that wasn’t as prevalent in the survey.”

However, it was by no means all negative. Guerrier said: “There were some people who were out there on social media standing up for the gypsies, saying that they felt proud that they were defending their rights, and that they had a heritage that they would be proud to have themselves.”

The research also helped in picking apart viewers’ opinions from the press portrayal of the show – much of which focused on complaints from travellers and non-travellers alike that the show was misleading and exploitative. Survey results suggested that most viewers didn’t feel this way, and that the programme improved their view of the communities it showed. Guerrier said: “For us, the really important thing was that you’ve got a potentially delicate subject, [and] we have research to prove that actually, on the balance of things, people felt the programme was more positive towards gypsies than negative – whereas the opposite had been said in the press.”

“Often research can stop at your internal clients or the teams that you immediately deal with. This has had a really good circulation within the channel”

James Guerrier, Channel 4

A broader picture
This sort of research is particularly useful for Channel 4, as many programmes target a social media-savvy audience and, as Guerrier says, “one of the things Channel 4 is there to do is stimulate debate”.

The broadcaster is integrating social media monitoring with other information sources more and more. Guerrier says: “Every single end-of-series report or genre review that we do from a content perspective will have, at its bare minimum, Barb viewing figures, video-on-demand viewing figures and social media – the number of mentions across different platforms. [How we do it] is still being finalised but social media is definitely going to be a big part of our team going forwards. It’s by no means the only source of conversation – there was a figure from Keller Fay saying that less than 10% of all brand-related conversations happen online and the rest is face to face or phone. So I don’t think you should get too carried away, but it’s still a valuable source of insight.”

Wise says the study has helped reveal how the way people engage with TV is changing, and the challenges this raises for research. “Ten years ago we would have judged shows on their viewing audience figures and that would have been the measure of success. Whereas now, if you’re a fan of a show what do you do to demonstrate that relationship, beyond just watching? Do you go on the website? Have you recorded it? Have you downloaded something? Are you tweeting? The things that you can do to demonstrate your engagement are now so many and varied that to understand the strength of the relationship you have to look beyond just sitting and watching.”

Less data, more insight
Guerrier says one of the best things about the results from Brand Driver’s social media monitoring was that “it didn’t have numbers in at all”. “There was no ‘6,400 people tweeted and the sentiment was 12% positive’; it was all boiled down into useful, meaningful nuggets.” Presenting the results to the production company, Firecracker Films (which is now working on a second series for broadcast next year) was “a real measure of success for us”, Guerrier says. “Often research can stop at your internal clients or the teams that you immediately deal with. This has had a really good circulation within the channel, being looked at by all the execs, but also from the people who actually make the programme and are working with the gypsy and traveller community every day. They were fascinated to see that some of the sort of hunches and intuitions they had about the programme were reflected in the research.”

Generating real insight from social media monitoring “can require a lot of legwork”, says Guerrier. “It has definitely been a challenge for us to try and make sense of the world of social media and we haven’t quite finalised our approach. I think it has been something that everyone finds it quite difficult to get their head around. We are almost there, I think. And I’m reassured because there are definitely still jobs for people like us who can work out what the insights are.”

Big fat gypsy research

Brand Driver conducted 753 online interviews among viewers of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings from a sample of 1,907 adults, as well as monitoring comments on Twitter, Facebook and Digital Spy during the final episode.

  • The show was well received by viewers, with more than half of those surveyed saying they enjoyed it a lot or loved it, and only 12% saying they disliked it or hated it
  • Viewers said they found the show entertaining, thought-provoking, funny and insightful – just the kind of thing Channel 4 should do more of
  • Most of all, viewers said they liked seeing how gypsies and travellers live, particularly the elaborate wedding dresses. Those who didn’t like the show pointed to the shocking sexual inequalities it revealed and to concerns about how fairly the communities were being portrayed
  • Nearly 80% of viewers said they had learned something new about gypsies and travellers from the programme
  • More than a third of viewers said they were left feeling more positively towards gypsies and travellers after watching the programme, while only 12% said they felt more negatively
  • Viewers spoke of how the show opened their eyes to the way these people live and the prejudice they face
  • Analysis of online comments identified three key ‘hooks’: a voyeuristic curiosity about the more extreme aspects of gypsy and traveller life, the ‘wow’ factor of the unfamiliar sights (particularly the dresses) and the cultural debate the show generated
  • When asked about their positive or negative perceptions of gypsies and travellers before seeing the show, people said their personal experience was the biggest factor influencing their views

You can watch Big Fat Gypsy Weddings online at 4OD