“A studio audience brings a lot of energy and pace, and they’re also markers for how we should be feeling at home, “says Frances Taylor, commissioning editor for comedy and entertainment at The Radio Times. “Without them, a lot of programs have a very different atmosphere.” Which, she adds, isn ‘t necessarily a bad thing. “Question Time probably is serving better without an audience, because it feels less gladiatorial, less combative.
” So it’s a calmer arena without the booing and clapping, it feels like a more measured program. And for the factual political programs, that’s arguably an improvement. “
The fact the panellist can then deliver their answer without heckling arguably removes some element of scrutiny – the audience’s reaction often has the effect of holding an individual to account, as the speaker is forced to respond to it.
But many viewers and panellists feel not having an audience has improved the level of debate.
Roger Mosey said the show had been “revitalized” , adding the speakers “no longer have to face a baying crowd of people seeking their own minute of fame.”
Time’s first audience-free episode aired, Piers Morgan said: “I actually preferred it, it did not have the bear pit element that it’s become. I’ve done Question Time more than times and instinctively you kind of treat it like a theater, you play to the audience , you go in for your app lause line.
“But when they’re not there, you actually have to be different, you can’t play.” to the gallery. You have to only play to the people there. I learned more from [watching] that Question Time than any of the recent shows for a few years, it was interesting. “
The BBC said live studio interaction and hearing from the general public are key parts of Question Time, but added it’s pleased the program has been able to make the new format work.
Comedy programs, on the other hand, are finding things tougher.
Helen Lewis , who recently appeared on the first audience-free episode of Have I Got News For You, acknowledging the difficulties in an article for The Atlantic. Comedy without an audience is, by definition, less funny, “she said. “Laughter is heightened when it’s a collective experience. We laugh more in a club or an arena than we do watching the same comedian’s Netflix special from our sofa.
“Nothing teaches you how to generate a laugh – or makes you more keen to get one – than ending a sentence and being greeted with the howling sound of absolute silence. As you perform, you begin to understand the fundamental grammar of comedy – the order in which to reveal information, for example.
TV producers must be applauded for keeping such programs on the air during such difficult circumstances. The writing, too, is just as strong as it’s ever been. But without anyone to encourage laughter, the jokes can fall flat to the viewer at home.
Last year, Researchers at University College London found viewers felt jokes were funnier when they were accompanied by the sound of others laughing.
“The laughter is influencing how funny the jokes seem and I think that’s because laughter is a very important signal for humans. It always means something, “said Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, who led the research.
Similarly, The Graham Norton Show on BBC One is able to survive without its audience because it isn’t exclusively a comedy show – it can function as a straightforward interview program if it has to, with its celebrity guests in their own homes.
It does, however, arguably lose some of its life and energy without a crowd – and it puts more pressure on the host.
“Graham Norton, in its normal format, thrives on that sparky punchiness of the dynamic between the guests, and there’s a laughter and energy with that that comes from the audience, “Taylor says.
Taylor notes:” It often depends on the skill of the presenter, and [Norton] is one of the best broadcasters in the country, same with Ant and Dec, they can make it work because they’re so good. “
It’s difficult to quantify how audience-free formats are affecting viewing figures. Question Time’s ratings (
) increased significantly, but that will have been influenced by other factors too – not least the show’s earlier timeslot, the busy news agenda, and the fact most of us are stuck at home.
A captive audience has meant improved viewing figures across the board – a recent episode of Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway which filmed without an audience actually recorded the show’s highest ever ratings of 9.5 million .
How long will this be the new normal? It’s difficult to say, because even if lockdown measures were eased somewhat in the coming weeks, some form of social distancing could well remain in place – which presents problems for producers.
“If it lasts to the end of the year, then you think about programs like Strictly,” says Taylor. “In Germany they’ve been filming that without an audience, but would they do that here? There are a lot of questions that actually not only do the government not yet have the answers to, but TV producers don’t have the answer to .
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