Audience engagement: what we can learn from Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

12Jul13

Remember the little kitten?“Remember the little kitten that capered around the mirror and then took a bath with a Japanese gentleman?” Hmmm, sorry Noel, I’m afraid I don’t. I haven’t seen the video, but given cats’ famed dislike of water and the presumed nudity of the Japanese gentleman, I can’t imagine it ends well. Someone once told me there are no proper swear words in Japanese; the theory is easy to test – all you need is a naked Japanese gentleman trapped in a bathtub with an apoplectic kitten scratching its way to freedom. Presumably Multi-Coloured Swap Shop – which broadcast the video several times in 1979 – cut away from the action before the cat did any real damage.

Swap Shop, for those who don’t know, was a Saturday morning kids’ TV show which ran on BBC 1 in the UK from 1976 to 1982. The premise was that Noel Edmonds and Keith Chegwin would preside over a series of ‘swaps’ conducted by children in the studio, over the phone or at outside broadcasts. Got a ker-plunk but want a light sabre? This was the show to call.

The original Swap Shop may have ended over 30 years ago, but it remains a role model for engaging, interactive media today – and I’m not just referring to our ongoing penchant for funny cat videos. The show was full of examples of how to do audience participation well, as I was reminded when I picked up The Second Multi-Coloured Swap Shop Book (Oxfam Books, 99p) in Aberystwyth this week.

The Second Multi-Coloured Swap Shop BookThe annual is 80 pages long and, by my rough tally, 30 of those pages include either user-generated content or an invitation to take part in something. We see kids’ worst photos, the results of a vote – 60,000 children choosing their favourite stars of the year – and several substantial features inspired by viewers’ letters. Children are invited to design an alternative record sleeve, send in their silly snaps and apply to join the audience for a TV recording – plus there’s a competition to win a trip to London to meet Noel and the gang. (This was long before the era of participation fatigue, don’t forget.)

In their calls to action, it’s clear Swap Shop were following the same set of principles that I recommend to colleagues at the Guardian 35 years later. Principles like these:

* Be absolutely clear about what you want from the audience.
Swap Shop knew their audience, gave examples of the kind of thing they were looking for and gave precise instructions to make sure contributions were appropriate: “DON’T send a load of drawings on the off-chance they’ll be OK. They probably won’t look right in front of the cameras unless you follow some rules”.

* Make sure you and the audience know the point of taking part.
Swap Shop’s calls to action tell the audience what will happen to their contributions: “maybe we can show them to swappers all over the country”.

* Acknowledge you can’t use everything.
John Craven acknowledges “there’s only a few minutes every Saturday in which to read out the newsiest” messages that children send in and suggests that, if a viewer’s news item hasn’t been included in the programme, they should write their own newsletter and share it with people locally. Likewise, Maggie Philbin admits “I won’t be able to answer all your letters” but promises she’s “able and willing to read them”.

They were also willing to let their audience lead the agenda. Going back to the capering kitten, lots of Swap Shop viewers wanted to know what the music was in the background of the film. The filmmakers couldn’t remember what they used (I dread to think what their music reporting looked like), so the presenters asked the audience to write in if they recognised it. Answers flooded in – but none of them were right. A music expert was enlisted to help – but he was baffled too. Finally, a viewer wrote to say that she had played the piece on the flute and sent in the sheet music. Having solved the puzzle, the programme makers invited her to come and play the flute on the show.

Of course, some things have changed. You wouldn’t encourage children to go door to door down their street – and you don’t see a gollywog pen topper very often any more. But when it comes to audience participation, the Guardian has a lot more in common with Swap Shop than it might care to think.

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