Illustration of an exoplanet by Greg Syme-Rumsby

FMP: Researching BBC Stargazing LIVE & its audience

The purpose of this blog post is to research the BBC Stargazing LIVE programme in order to fully understand its aims and investigate who the audience consists of, how big it is, and what design is likely to appeal to the audience. This is to ensure my designs are as suitable as possible. To achieve this, I will research into the designs of the resources they have produced and distributed.

For this project I have found it necessary to spend more time than expected on investigating the programme and its audience, something that dovetails neatly into the series The Brits who Built the Modern World I watched recently where it was stated that an important factor of the famously successful architects Foster + Partners was due to spending extra time on understanding the brief and its audience, meaning the often unconventional solution they came up with achieved its aims by perfectly fitting the client and audience’s needs, as seen in the HSBC Building located in Hong Kong.

HSBC Building in Hong Kong.
HSBC Building in Hong Kong. Image from Foster + Partners website.


Programme Aims & Audience Appeal:

It appears from the quotes below that the BBC have a very clear idea of what audience the programme is designed to appeal to.

“To show everyone – from the complete beginner to the enthusiastic amateur – how to make the most of the night sky.”

“Everyone can get involved and we hope the audience will join in to explore the wonders of space.”

This covers a lot of people, so to reach them and achieve this target, for three consecutive days one week every January since 2011, one-hour long shows are televised on BBC2 at 8pm, a primetime slot, which shows how important the BBC sees the programme as being and their view as to getting the largest audience possible.

Brian Cox & Dara O Briain at Jodrell Bank Observatory

The show is presented by Brian Cox and Dara Ó Briain at Jodrell Bank Observatory looking out towards the large radio telescopes as a focal point. From watching the shows, it is interesting to note that one of the show’s strengths lies in being very basic at its core, and embellishing it with features and interviews throughout, making for a flexible programme to accommodate content at short notice.

Mark Thompson. Photo by Antony Kelly
Mark Thompson. Photo by Antony Kelly

Participation in observing the night sky is encouraged, for observing the night sky, whether for fun or for a particular purpose, as in 2012 when the show asked people to search for exoplanets. Having watched the show as a ‘passive armchair viewer’ it is not essential in order to enjoy the program. Mark Thompson, their resident astronomer is located near the studio observing the night sky with a telescope and highlighting objects, weather permitting!

Summary:

It is very clear the show has mainstream appeal, especially towards younger viewers, where the aim is to inspire them to not only have an interest in astronomy, but to encourage them to participate in STEM (Science, Technology, Maths, Engineering) subjects at school. This is a popular agenda at the minute, with the Bloodhound SSC land speed record attempt another project with a similar aim.

The other branch of the audience is highly enthusiastic amateur astronomers who already have some knowledge and want to build it further and enhance their skills to get more out of their interest. Therefore I think it is important that I investigate into amateur astronomy and see what it entails.


Audience Ratings & Demographics:

At first, I really struggled to find audience figures but after looking around for some time, I found what I needed on Digital Spy. During my research I found some online articles written during the show’s second series in January 2012, and picked out some interesting observations that I’ve listed below and will then summarise.

Daily Mail:
  • Amazon reported a 491% increase in telescope sales during the first show in 2012.
  • The number of physics students rose by 19.6%.
  • The number of chemistry students rose by 19.4%.
The Guardian:
  • The popularity of ‘amateur astronomy’ is rising quickly.
  • A major increase in astronomy magazine subscriptions, an example being the BBC’s Sky at Night.
  • The advances of telescope technology have made them much easier to use, making them more accessible.
  • The cost of a good quality telescope has fallen as the technology gets cheaper and more people buy them.
  • Even ‘beginner’ telescopes are powerful to see amazing detail.
Digital Spy:

Below I have collated the TV ratings for BBC Stargazing LIVE and put them into a table, to make it easier to spot trends. I have also included the percentage of the total audience to remove any misleading bias, as different days sees larger overall TV audiences.

BBC Stargazing LIVE audience ratings

Summary:

Looking at the ratings, the first day is always the strongest and interest dies away to varying degrees. There is a slight negative trend for the 2013 and 2014 series, which could signal the audience becoming bored with the format. However, it should be pointed out that the average viewer figures for the 8pm time slot on BBC2 is 2 million viewers, so the show is still performing well, and ratings are above the slot average.

Then, when looking into the rise in popularity of amateur astronomy, I think the drop could be attributed to as the series’ progress, the core audience emerges and it appears to be a very healthy one, meaning that the resources I am looking to design will be worth it.


Amateur astronomy & it’s appeal:

amateur

a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis. 

When reading another BBC media release, I came across a quote by Sir Patrick Moore — a famous amateur astronomer who presented The Sky At Night — which made me think just what a fulfilling interest it can be.

“The amateur astronomer can make a real contribution to the science. It is a truly wonderful hobby.”

Referring back to the Guardian article discussed earlier, they also spoke to Chris Bramley, the editor of the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine, who stated a reason why amateur astronomy was so popular.

“There is nothing to beat the magical feeling when an image of a planet slides into your eyepiece for the first time and you see it with your own eyes. That is the real joy of the hobby.”

He also discussed the emerging audience:

“We are getting many more families and youngsters taking an interest in the subject and in our magazine. We get letters from 12-year-olds enthusing about astronomy.”

This is a viewpoint I can understand. I was first taught about astronomy in Year 5 at primary school, and our school had a visit from a mobile Planetarium, something similar to the image below.
It was a fantastic experience, and one that really propelled my interest in the subject, so it is not surprising that others would become interested like I did.

Inside a mobile inflatable Planetarium
Inside a mobile inflatable Planetarium


Social Media:

Their only official presence comes on Twitter, but it’s not encouraging to see the ‘OFF AIR’ text, especially when you know that’s there for 362 days of the year… it really highlights the problem that for the rest of the year it is very difficult to build on that interest, which I think would potentially lead to higher audience ratings for them.

I am aware that The Sky at Night is a weekly program for astronomers, but having watched a couple of episodes my personal viewpoint is that it is not very engaging to a large proportion of the audience Stargazing LIVE appeals to.

BBC Stargazing LIVE twitter icon
Twitter icon

However, keeping people up to date via social media is a great way of sustaining an audience as people can be kept up to date with the latest news, images and observations, which currently Stargazing LIVE is not doing so well at, although this is likely to not be the case for a lot of the year. An example of this patchy coverage occurred on the evening of the 27th February, where one of the most stunning shows of the Aurora Borealis in 20 years was seen in many areas of the UK. For the 2014 series, this was a major feature of the shows, with Liz Bonnin travelling to Norway in search of it, which turned out to be a major success for the show.

Aurora Borealis over Dunluce Castle in County Antrim
Aurora Borealis over Dunluce Castle in County Antrim, image credit to Martina Gardiner

While this event was an unexpected and fantastic surprise, I was amazed to see their Twitter page dormant, while huge interest spread around Twitter courtesy of weather presenters, other astronomy social media channels and excited onlookers. I feel that this shows a lack of interest and care towards their 46,100 followers (as of 27.2.14) and is not a healthy way of keeping the show in the audience’s mind.


Events:

Investigating some more, I came across a BBC Media Centre article, which stated that for 2014 BBC Learning and partners were hosting several free events with “science demonstrations… images showcased from telescopes… and space themed activities.” It also states that these events are designed to guide people with how to view the night sky and it appears they have been rather popular.

“Over 40,000 people got involved in one of more than 300 Stargazing Live events across the country.”

It is likely to be these people who would be the immediate focus for a print based design solution such as a book or infographic poster. From what my research has uncovered so far, I definitely there would be an interest for these products.


Website:

The website is a very important platform for the audience to engage with the programme on a year-round basis. Therefore I thought I would investigate into it, and see what it does and doesn’t do well.

Click here to visit the BBC Stargazing LIVE website.

Episodes & Clips

The episodes are not available on BBC iPlayer, although some of the most popular clips of the program are made available on the website, allowing them to be watched whenever, allowing for the audience either to re-watch their favourite moments or for newer members of the audience to gain an understanding of the subject.

Galleries & Photo Group

The strongest section of their website is definitely the stunning collection of photos that amateur astronomers submit to their Flickr page and the galleries the programme has built up recently. It is amazing to see, and it is certainly backs my point up that it is the visuals that draw most people into astronomy, as can be seen in the image below.

The Moon on March 9th, 2014 - Joel Tonyan - Flickr
The Moon on March 9th, 2014 – Joel Tonyan – Flickr
Star Guides, Calendars & Posters

This is a particularly important area of the website for me to focus on, as the final result I will be producing will most likely be in this category. The BBC have only focused on online resources so far, and it appears these have been extremely popular.

“Last year, there were 2.4 million downloads of the Stargazing Live Star Guide – the most downloaded BBC resource of all-time (produced by BBC Learning).”

To me, this certainly suggests there is a demand for more permanent printed resources such as books, posters and infographics.

2013 Star Guide

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.31.44

Some really helpful tips for the audience, even if most already know it, many will not. I never knew about the red torch for instance!

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.32.05

Generally the maps are clean and well-designed, although I really think more of the space on the page could be used as everything is quite cramped in. Also I have to say there is not much difference between the brightness of the stars, when in reality, there would be more of a difference.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.34.36 Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.34.47

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.35.14 Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.35.28

One element of their star guide that I was really impressed by was the planet comparison guide. While this is often done to show the gap in size, I think this is the best one I have seen, as all the objects they compare them to are realistically accessible and instantly understandable to all the audience. The vector illustrations are also really clean and simple, just the right balance.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.19.00

Star Maps 2014

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.28.21

It appears the star guides of 2012 and 2013 were replaced for 2014 with a set of ‘standalone’ small maps, which aren’t that different to what has been before, except taking less time to produce. The only design decision that really baffles is why the maps are on a white translucent background, I think it should always be a dark colour to best reflect the night sky.

2014 Calendar

This year a calendar has been released, and I have to say the imagery is incredible, just what is required to catch and keep the interest of the audience.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.57.57 Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.58.47

The layout of the monthly sections is not as well laid out as hoped, but contains interesting facts and importantly marks dates with what to look out for, which is great, as usually, it’s not easy to find out if there’s anything interesting or different to look at through the year.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 16.59.01

Posters

With the 2012 series investigating exoplanets, the first thing I came across was an illustration by Greg Syme-Rusmby detailing how an exoplanet could look. While the illustration is good, I think the information on it such as the BBC 2 logo and credit should have been better integrated than just placed in the corner at that large size.

Illustration of an exoplanet by Greg Smye-Rumsby

I also had a look at their ‘The Universe Through Time’ poster and while I found it was certainly the sort of thing some would want to display, I felt that even the extended format compressed the individual sections too much, leading to a compressed view that means every element is squashed in, not giving any breathing space or room for proper information.

The Universe Through Time

Animations

There were also a couple of animated guides on the webpage, which I watched, and was impressed at how much could be simply explained in a reasonably short space of time. I also thought the visuals used were much easier to understand than seen in the universe poster discussed above.

The constellation screenshot below, while not an uncommon technique, is still successful in illustrating why a particular constellation received its name. The only reservation I have with these illustrations in general is that the shape is never too close to that of the stars, perhaps this is something my designs could address.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 14.00.42

An unfortunate feature of the visuals seen throughout, but especially below was the lack of vibrance, which makes for a very dull look, something that is not the case in the posters. It is very important for visuals to be vibrant as they will be far more eye-catching and therefore likely to draw the audience’s attention and keep it.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 14.02.33 Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 14.05.14 Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 14.06.30


Reflection on the research so far:

This has been a much longer and more detailed section of research than originally planned, and thus has taken far more time I than had scheduled. However, I think the time I have taken has been worth it, and has allowed for a thorough examination of the programme’s activities, and importantly removed assumptions I previously held about what resources they had produced and the quality of them.

However, it raises an issue that I will address briefly in the conclusion below before covering it suitably in the next blog post I write investigating what the correct direction for this project should be. The research has shown me so far I need to focus in on exactly what I should expect to produce while I am researching, then leave it to the end. That way, I have a plan, but still an adaptable one, as the original brief was left open to allow for freedom of creative solutions.


Conclusion:

After investigating the TV programme, I think that my research has shown there not to be a problem with the show other than its seasonality, as it still seems to be popular, giving me a platform to build on. The show’s pinpointed focus though on three consecutive nights in January appears to me to be holding back the rest of the events being spun off from that.

My initial assumption/research of them not using their assets (visual imagery) properly appear to be well on the way to be solved, but I still think the way information is arranged and displayed leaves a lot to be desired and could be built upon.

As for not having an offline presence, another point I raised early in the project, by having PDF resources, that makes them accessible, but not able to be printed off to a high quality by the average audience, which is disappointing for a resource such as a calendar, that would look great produced professionally.

I think there is a market for some well-designed permanent resources such as night sky guides that aren’t just kept to one year, but could be used for however long the audience have an interest in the subject. This could work well as online resources as well, as there is always going to be a larger demand for these as they are more accessible by being free and taking up less space.

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