The Wright Way goes wrong: how social media is changing TV

As Ben Elton and Peter Kay feel the heat of Twitter's critics and communal viewing makes a comeback, Mark Lawson asks if broadcasters are running scared

This week's news that Ben Elton's much-despised BBC1 sitcom The Wright Way will not return for a second series couldn't have come as much of a surprise. Peter Kay's announcement that he will premiere his new BBC comedy on iPlayer ahead of its network TV outing, however, is unprecedented.

Both were discussed during a lunch at which Shane Allen, BBC controller of comedy commissioning, spoke to the Broadcasting Press Guild. And the decisions are connected, by a growing concern in the industry about the difficulty of launching a new comedy in an age of immediate viewer reaction – thanks to social media.

Kay, who is moving from Channel 4 to the BBC, has negotiated the iPlayer pre-release – on a service initially designed for catch-up viewing – as part of a so-called soft launch. That advertising-industry phrase contrasts with the hard-sell promotion most high-profile TV shows would generally receive. The creator of Phoenix Nights is a major showbiz commodity; huge advertising and trail campaigns would be the usual response, the televisual equivalent of a movie or theatre opening night. But Kay admits he was nervous, fearful of heavy backlash had the BBC unveiled his new show with extended hype.

While the BBC certainly never made similar claims for The Wright Way – executives seemed to have quickly realised the writer had failed to create another Blackadder – the experimental way Kay's series is being released is almost certainly linked to the increasing influence that the audience has via Twitter, where Elton faced a rough reception.

The rise of social-media reaction alongside traditional reviewers is significant not only because it can escalate the barrage against a disliked programme, but because – crucially – the latter reaction occurs as the show goes out, with a cumulative fury arising from the communality of the viewing. Although The Wright Way got respectable audiences – 3.5 million to 4 million – a general perception that it was terrible emerged from the show getting four barrels at once, from both old and new opinion-makers.

It's only fair to point out that some comedies have benefited, with rapid audience feedback serving as an immediate court of appeal against the hanging judges of newspapers. A case in point is Brendan O'Carroll's Mrs Brown's Boys. Generally condemned by Fleet Street as being a below-average, sub-Everage ripoff, the Irish mammy drag-act achieved huge audiences, arguably as a result of enthusiasm on social media. Twitter, if it gets behind a show, can become the perfect conduit for what the entertainment industry dreams of: positive word-of-mouth.

The possibility of the opposite has become an issue for TV producers, and Kay's attempted soft launch seems a canny precaution against it: viewers are more likely to feel positive – and pass that message on – about a show they feel they've stumbled upon, rather than one packaged and flogged as a must-see.

What's odd about the power of instant viewer-reviewing is that it has arrested a trend in television against shared experience. Delay and replay devices, and DVD box sets, have encouraged the staggered reception of programmes far more than the video-recorder ever had. Audiences were more likely to binge-view, taking in a full series on box set. Added to this is the new practice of series-dumping – for example, Netflix's decision to make every episode of House of Cards, Arrested Development and Breaking Bad available at once, thus enabling self-scheduling. It's an idea that further works against the traditional idea of a nation watching simultaneously from their sofas.

Twitter has changed all that, giving a new boost to communal viewing. Fearing the potential of this communal response to sabotage, Kay is encouraging fragmented viewing as a way of spreading the rate of reaction: in other words, he's series-dumping the episodes on iPlayer as a way of preventing too many people from slagging off his series at once.

The risk of this is that, in trying to avoid being killed at birth, Kay's show may be slaughtered before it comes out on television proper. The question of how best to launch – or, as executives like to say, "get away" – a TV show has become a huge debate now that there are so many ways of watching. It's the reason drama executives lurch nervously between stripping (running a series on consecutive nights, such as next week's Run on Channel 4) and playing episodes once a week, such as ITV's Broadchurch.

The Wright Way was an extreme example: few comedians have as many media enemies as Elton, and few would include so many "knob" jokes in a 2013 comedy. But it has led to hand-wringing about the best way to debut a comedy. Kay's gamble is that his show can creep up on the world slowly – that it can be seen before it is disbelieved.

• This article was amended on 11 July 2013. An earlier version implied that Peter Kay's decision to premiere his new comedy series on iPlayer was first revealed at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch this week, and that the experimental way it was being released was almost certainly linked to the reception Ben Elton faced when his sitcom The Wright Way was broadcast. While the decision to debut the Kay show on iPlayer was discussed at this week's lunch, it had previously been revealed in an interview published in the Guardian in March, before The Wright Way was broadcast.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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