February 7, 2005

TRENDS: Mobisoaps - Hollyoaks is out to charm young viewers with exclusive episodes sent to their phones (UK)

A secret shared

Hollyoaks is out to charm young viewers with exclusive episodes sent to their phones. Rob Harris uncovers a teen-friendly TV trend

Rob Harris
Monday February 7, 2005


In soapland, there is nothing like a wedding to boost the ratings. From the preparations to the honeymoon, the audience can expect to share the drama. Until now. TV viewers are being excluded from the nuptials of Hollyoaks's Mandy Richardson and Tony Hutchinson - in a broadcasting first, when the lovebirds jet out to Paris in a fortnight, only mobile phone users will be invited. For a price, subscribers will be sent a series of picture messages with brief plot captions.

"Viewers can get that little bit of extra info to gossip about with their friends," promises Sarah Dunn, who stars in the February 21 mobile premiere as Mandy. Those without the technology will be none the wiser, but integrating phones with broadcast media, so viewers can access their favourite TV programmes on the move, could prove a crucial tool in retaining brand loyalty.

For £1.50, users will receive five daily instalments of the Mersey TV-produced soap as a series of picture slides, via multimedia messaging (MMS). The producers point out that the price is relatively low, compared to the cost of ringtones and graphics, which their target audience already download. Mersey TV further insists that they are not considering extending the project to their other teen-oriented show, Grange Hill, to prevent the 14-18 demographic becoming over-commercialised.

It is more a creative tool than a money-spinner, says Lee Hardman, the head of Conker Media, Mersey TV's digital development and production division, which developed the technology along with mobile marketing specialists Brainstorm. "This type of thing only works if the production team buys into it; creative elements cannot just be bolted on as a revenue generator."

Hollyoaks, which is set in a fictional suburb of Chester, regularly commands more than two million viewers in a 6.30 timeslot. Although the show is aimed at 16-24-year-olds, the mobile service is seen as a way to tap into a slightly younger audience, with the promise of "a unique insight into their favourite characters". An existing SMS text message service delivers a character's extra thoughts as the closing credits roll.

But the show's executive producer, Jo Hallows, concedes that viewers will be missing out on plots by not subscribing to the MMS stories. "It's a shared secret with the audience," she says. Hallows says she is surprised by the limited take-up of the technology, given the endless possibilities to bring viewers closer to their shows.

On Vodafone's 3G service, US drama 24 has launched 24 "mobisodes" to tie in with its fourth series, but unlike the Hollyoaks service, these do not feature the same characters as the broadcast version. In the Netherlands, the twice-daily Jong Zuid and the Endemol-produced Fantesstic operate as exclusively mobile soaps without any television companions.

It is estimated that one in 20 phones in Britain are now MMS-capable, but given the popularity of this service, TV companies have been slow to take up MMS technology as quickly as they seized SMS. Last year, for example, viewers of Five's Family Affairs were able to vote by text to decide on the outcome of a major storyline, and text votes are crucial to shows such as Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!. In April last year, Johnny Vaughan's now-defunct BBC3 chat show was the first to encourage viewers to send in MMS pictures of themselves to be praised or ridiculed. This idea was transferred to Vaughan's BBC1 show on Saturday nights with Denise Van Outen, Passport to Paradise, in which MMS photos were displayed at the end of the episode. However, the BBC has not pushed the technology in the other direction, with the only noticeable sign being trials of Video Nation clips on the 3 network. The BBC's interactive team say that they are looking at how to make content available on mobile platforms, given that people are leading busier lives preventing them from watching programmes at their scheduled time. Yet they have no plans to apply the technology to bigger shows such as EastEnders.

The makers of Hollyoaks know that they are on to a winner with the MMS spin-off, given its low production costs and the fact that its audience is completely comfortable with the technology. The show's website receives 15m hits a month. Hallows says: "They change their mobile phones more often than they change their underwear. It's their biggest priority, so we need to tap into that and it will enable us to develop a closer relationship with our fanbase. This is an opportunity for kids to get messages on the school bus, which means they will gossip about them. The new technology is in its infancy but it is growing very fast and we have only just started with it at the moment. The only limit really is your imagination."

Hollyoaks already uses MMS in other ways: subscribers can receive a 15-20 second trailer for the next day's programme, but the sound quality is still not perfect. Last year, 30,000 budding actors sent in pictures via their phones and the web vying for a place at the Hollyoaks On The Pull auditions. Another cheekily named product, Textual Intercourse, will bring viewers right to the heart of the new MMS spin-off. As Conker Media points out, it is quite a challenge writing a story when you are limited to 160 characters per slide, so they are opening the process out to their audience. Viewers will be encouraged to use SMS to send in their own 160-character stories for the MMS service.

In the 1990s, Mersey TV's Hollyoaks and Brookside were the first shows to launch spin-off videos. Hallows, who has been with Hollyoaks since it launched in 1995, says that if the de mand is there, now even specific storylines can be tailored to the audience's desires. She says: "If we wanted to make a late-night DVD, the fans can say 'we want it to be like this and we want these people to be in it'. Effectively, we can make it for them with the money that they pay us. If the audience wants it, why not give it to them?"

Chris Schuepp
Young People's Media Network - Coordinator
c/o ECMC (European Centre for Media Competence)
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