TV

Letter From London: An Embarrassing Success

There once was a time when Big Brother was impossible to beat on Channel 4's summer schedules. But Channel 4 has found another way to pull in the ratings, and score a huge tick in its public service credentials: Embarrassing Bodies.
July 9, 2009

There once was a time when Big Brother was impossible to beat on Channel 4′s summer schedules. But Channel 4 has found another way to pull in the ratings, and score a huge tick in its public service credentials: Embarrassing Bodies.

Channel 4′s Embarrassing Bodies has proven an enormous hit, and is a shining example of the broadcaster’s efforts to make noisy, popular programming which also does a lot of good. The program features members of the public coming forward with extreme manifestations of often commonplace conditions, from psoriasis, to herpes, to foot fungus. Treated by hunky doctor Christian Jessen and his equally photogenic and compassionate colleagues, it is compulsively watchable. It’s also very appropriate for Channel 4, according to the brand’s exec producer Steph Harris of Maverick, the indie behind the brand.

‘I think it’s very Channel 4 in its attitude,’ Harris says. ‘If BBC One was to do this it would be Street Doctor – with Channel 4 the sensibilities of that broadcaster allow you to push boundaries.’ Those boundaries include very graphic and sometimes grotesque scenes of the conditions and their treatment, not for the fainthearted.

The brand is also attracting acclaim for its phenomenally successfully interactive web site, which has expanded over time. ‘The new media to begin with was very much responsive in the first series,’ says Harris. ‘As we developed in the next series of specials, we used to wonder how we could make it much more interactive.’ Channel 4′s cross-platform department began commissioning special content, driven by self-help guides, which were repeatedly flagged during the programs. In its first four days of going live, there were 12,000 mobile phone downloads. To date more than 400,000 people have taken the Sexually Transmitted Infections risk assessment – numbers that Britain’s National Health Service can only marvel at. The website now includes 200 guides to illnesses and 70 exclusive videos, and has received over 20 million page views. It also recently won a BAFTA interactive award.

So will we be seeing the Embarrassing format in other countries? ‘It’s a tricky one to sell abroad, to be honest,’ says Harris. ‘Even though it’s rivaling fully funded dramas on BBC 1 – it’s going from strength to strength – it’s an acquired taste for international broadcasters.’ Indeed it’s hard to imagine many broadcasters, including the notably more prurient Americans, taking it on.

Last night saw the first of an updated series targeting teens, a notoriously tricky demographic to reach with public service broadcasting. So those tuning in at 8pm were treated to a no holds barred view of genital warts and advanced skin cancer – shown as a warning to sun bed worshipping teens, and their parents. ‘The importance with the teen series was not to alienate the mainstream audience to the show but to actually bring teens to it, and I think we succeeded in doing it by actually giving it a dual voice,’ says Harris.

Next in the offing is a kids series, which must bring with it a whole new raft of sensibilities, including the title of the program, which Harris admits can be problematic. ‘The whole point of the show is to take away the embarrassment. On the one hand, the title brings people to the show and on the other hand it can be off-putting as well,’ she says.

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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