#TheArchers: a bunting tragedy

It’s been a fascinating couple of days. The Archers, that national institution which is broadcast twice a day, six days a week on BBC Radio 4, celebrated its 60th anniversary on Sunday 2 January.

The double-length, much trailed episode, broadcast just after 7pm was a ‘bunting tragedy’ to quote Twitter’s @AmbridgeView. Well I guess she ought to know, since @AmbridgeView is scribed by Charlotte Martin who plays that doyenne of the community shop, Susan Carter, in the radio soap.

For weeks leading up to the anniversary regular listeners were aware that something ‘shocking’ was going to happen on 2 January 2011. The programme’s editor, Vanessa Whitburn, had forecast some time ago that events in the anniversary episode would ‘shock Ambridge to the core’. The Archers and Twitter are now inextricably linked, with genuine BBC tweets intermingling with totally fictitious (unauthorised) impersonations of characters in the programme. There is a Twitter ID for virtually every cast character, including @HenryArcher2011, just two days old at the time of writing!

Perhaps I should come clean here.  I tweet in the name of two well-loved characters (suffice to say I’m getting well acquainted with regional dialects), but unlike @AmbridgeView I very much regret to advise I have no official connection with The Archers!

As the big day approached the tweets became ever more speculative as regards what was going to shock Ambridge to the core, with the hashtag #sattc being usefully added so that avid fans could keep track of what the latest thinking was. And then the BBC itself, that august organisation we love and admire in equal part to often believing it is mammon, inflexible and unimaginative in large part, realised the power of Twitter as an excellent medium for channelling listeners’ interest in the anniversary events and plot.

The Archers 60th ‘tweetalong’

At the end of last week trailers started to be broadcast encouraging listeners to ‘join the conversation’ and to add the hashtag #thearchers to their tweets. They even told us that on 2 January there’d be a tweetalong to the broadcast of the landmark episode and an analysis conducted of the tweets made with that hashtag before, during and after the broadcast. Listeners were positively encouraged to listen to the broadcast AND tweet along or just follow the progress of the hashtag via the various search features in Twitter.

It was, indeed, absolutely riveting. Whether that’s from the perspective of the unfolding plot or simply the level of interest in the programme and its general storyline, or the sheer fascination of the speculation as to what would happen (or happen next). I listened to the radio programme and I tweeted along like so many others, but I was also wearing the hat of a digital communicator. Beyond the basic premise of an online conversation I was fascinated to see the way the conversation moved and the amount of traffic that was generated. It was, in short, a fascinating social media experiment run in real time.

The results are indeed fascinating to study, whether you have just a passing interest in what happened or something a little more specific in terms of social media development. The Archers‘ blog published a brilliant page yesterday which showed all the tweets from just before 7pm on Sunday until a little beyond the end of the broadcast. A ‘heartbeat monitor’ takes the pulse of the Twitter conversation throughout the playback, so that one can see the peaks and troughs. A tag cloud shows common words that people are tweeting, and mentions of characters’ names is shown in percentage terms in expanding/contracting bubbles.

If you’ve not already seen it, do take a look, (link opens in new window/tab), and be sure to run the tweets run through so that you can follow the conversation as the plot unfolded. To make that happen you need to click the solid right arrow (or ‘play’ button) at the top right corner of the page under the title (see image to right).

Other applications?

I believe there are lessons that can be learned here by all parties interested in the general development of social media and Twitter in particular. I applaud the BBC for embracing Twitter as a communications medium with a difference. As I see it they’ve harnessed the power of Twitter to directly involve their listeners with the unfolding storyline of the anniversary edition. Furthermore, by producing the post-broadcast timeline they have a wonderful source of material for seeing what the audience thought about the storyline, including countless totally wrong predictions of where the plot was leading. If the scriptwriters should be short of copy for future plotlines the listeners have given them a wealth of ideas to work on, and some strong signals about the affection or dislike of specific characters.

This excellent model could be used in a political context, either at local or national level.  I’ve not reached a firm conclusion as yet but whilst the subject’s still ‘of the moment’ I thought I’d put down some initial thoughts.

There might be a council debate taking place. The council could promote the televising or webcasting of the event and encourage local people to tweet along and share their thoughts. Obviously the topic of the debate would need to be sufficiently engaging (or perhaps contentious) in order to generate a broad range of listeners, but the subsequent analysis of that conversation would doubtless provide a good indication of the public mood or buy-in to both the subject under discussion and/or the democratic process generally. Maybe someone has already tried this, but if they have I’m not aware of it.  Oh, and yes, I’m the first to concede that a council debate is highly unlikely to have folk hooked quite as firmly as the BBC managed on Sunday evening, but hopefully you get my general drift.

So, there you have it, my thoughts on The Archers and Twitter. And now before I close, I’d like to share a selection of my favourite tweets from Sunday’s episode and its aftermath (still unfolding):

@potterwigham: Thanks Helen #thearchers for bring us back from our slough of despond by going on about expressing milk.

@jamspangle: At least hearing the news will mean Helen will talk about something other than babies for two minutes #thearchers

@Chainsaw_McGinn: If they’d only taken the time to write a good risk assessment and used correct ppe [personal protective equipment] #thearchers

@NickFitz: Nigel’s scream lasted about 3 seconds: given g=9.8m/s he fell c44m, or 144 feet. Buckingham Palace is 24m high. Big house 😉 #sattc

@jgmcintyre: #thearchers Advert for Thursday’s Borchester Echo: Vacancy for village idiot, Ambridge, following sudden change of circumnstance

@kmflett: Ambridge Socialist Update – questions about who will represent the Government at Nigel Pargetter’s funeral #sattc

@AmbridgeView: Who would have thought it? A bunting tragedy in #thearchers

@Stickings90: This was a dastardly plot by Queen of Capriciousness, Vanessa Whitburn, to instigate a 10yr family feud #sattc

@HistoryNeedsYou I think the banner was t ed with a spur lash. Nigel certainly landed with one … #thearchers

@Ecogray: “There was something of the Peter Pan in Nigel” http://bbc.in/edxl56. Shame it wasn’t the ability to fly. #thearchers

@PropertyJourn: So Nigel definitely dead. It seems to me, he lived his life like a banner in the wind. #sattc

@WorcsPaul: Health & Safety nannies visit Lower Loxley and insist “Beware falling Nigels” signs installed #sattc

@LyndaSnell: Nigel was the Peoples’ Dame

Please share your favourite #sattc tweets in comments in your feel so inclined. I hope you will!