CAMPAIGN: Media Relations - Pop Idol show climaxes with media frenzy

If you haven't heard of the TV show Pop Idol, you must have been living on the moon for the past few months. The biggest media sensation since the first series of Big Brother (many would argue that Pop Idol's appeal has been even wider), the show's PR machine has spawned more stories than Jackanory.

Will Young may have won the title but the puppeteers behind the show - Thames TV, ITV, record company BMG, sponsor Vizzavi, and the four judges (two of whom have stakes in Young's career) - have all benefited from the hype of the series.

Objectives

To familiarise the viewing public with how the show worked in the initial phase, particularly how it differed from Popstars. To attract a large audience and generate major participation in the telephone polls to vote for contestants. To attract a broad, mass audience, from soap-watchers to Newsnight viewers.

Strategy and Plan

PR agency Henry's House was taken on by series producer Thames TV in July 2001, straight after it had finished the publicity for the second series of Big Brother.

At the initial stage, the team was conscious of managing press expectations.

Five months is a long time to maintain interest, so the team wanted the publicity to trickle out slowly. The agency also feared a backlash against reality TV following Popstars and Soapstars, so it could not 'overhype it too soon,' says an agency source.

Early publicity also focused on getting the public familiar with the judges and presenters.

Although Nicki Chapman and Pete Waterman already had a high profile, and presenters Ant and Dec were popular thanks to the show SM:TV, Simon Cowell was relatively unknown.

Henry's House denies it set out to portray Cowell as Pop Idol's version of Nasty Nigel (the ascerbic judge of Popstars), but there is no denying that the dynamic between the judges, and the somewhat fractious relationship between some of the contestants and Cowell, fanned the flames of hype.

After auditions in August, and the press launch of the show in late September (which attracted 300 journalists), the publicity machine rolled into its next phase with the first screening of the show on 6 October. That month's show revealed the process of the judges whittling the initial 10,000 hopefuls down to 100, complete with some excruciatingly dire performances and emotions running high.

'At this point we started to focus attention on the contestants, picking out individual human interest stories,' explains Julian Henry, Henry's House managing director. 'It wasn't hard because there were so many stories, what with people crying and threatening the judges,' he adds.

The team adopted a policy of giving out as many exclusives as possible. No interviews were allowed of individuals at this point.

Henry maintains that the idea was still to present the contestants as a group.

Some reporters have suggested that there were subtle moves made by the judges to direct coverage to certain star individuals, but Henry denies this: 'If the media wanted to seize on one person and say "we're backing X", then that was fine, but we didn't suggest it.'

By January, with only ten singers left, the Pop Idol PR machine had cranked into top gear. The publicity for the show was even fed back into itself as many of the shows (especially the ITV2 coverage) picked over the various tabloid articles that entrants had been subject to during that week.

The 5 January broadcast on ITV2 even devoted half its time to an OK! magazine photoshoot of the final ten.

At this stage, the press were let loose on the finalists and the personal stories became the main feature of coverage. How was Gareth Gates coping with his stammer? Why had Pop Stars reject Darius Danesh returned for another stab at fame?

There were angles aplenty - all of which were exploited to the full by the time Will and Gareth took to their battle buses for the final week of campaigning.

Measurement and Evaluation

Full evaluation was underway as PRWeek went to press, but highlights of the coverage include 53 tabloid front-page stories during the campaign and six cover stories in Heat magazine.

Journalists were impressed that they were given plenty of access - and that there wasn't too much control exerted.

The only major hiccup came when a rash of kiss-and-tell stories emerged about Simon Cowell. This resulted in Cowell taking on publicist Max Clifford to keep them at bay. But, arguably, the hiring of Clifford led to an even higher profile for Cowell.

Results

In the final weeks, the shows were attracting around ten million viewers. Record-breaking numbers of people phoned in to vote for their favourite 'idol' - more than five million on the penultimate show and almost nine million for the final.

The biggest PR success, however, was the breadth of coverage and the range of fans. By the end of the show even broadsheets were devoting features to the show.

Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the campaign's success was the fact that The Guardian's political editor Michael White penned a two-page spread on what politicians could learn from Will and Gareth's battle-bus campaigning tactics.

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