Emmerdale's 40th - In Retrospect

Steve November, ITV's Head of Continuing Series shares his insights on how ITV celebrated long running classic 'Emmerdale's' 40th year on air.

"The Live episode of Emmerdale provided the perfect shop window to market the programme"

The anniversary of a long-running programme is in many ways irrelevant to regular viewers; whether the programme is four or forty years old we turn on to see characters we love in great stories. We expect, rightfully, that every episode will deliver.

Which raises the question of whether to mark an anniversary. Why, when every week and episode needs to be delivering drama of the highest possible standard to a regular audience, should we single out one week or episode?

We asked this question ahead of Emmerdale’s 40th birthday and the answer was that an anniversary is a rare and unmissable marketing opportunity that affords a great opportunity to draw attention to the programme and to create talk around it.

It provides, in short, the perfect shop window to market the programme to lapsed and lighter viewers.

Changing perceptions

And this was particularly relevant in Emmerdale’s case as the programme has suffered for many years from a very distinct gap between what the programme is and what people perceive it to be. Unlike Coronation Street and Eastenders, Emmerdale has evolved enormously through its 40 years.

From its 1972 roots as a short-run rural saga about a farming family it has become a very modern drama about an entire community - a community which is rural but in which the issues are universal. Despite this evolution however, to many people it remained the ‘farming’ soap.

Shifting this false perception of Emmerdale has seemed, at times, impossible and therefore we wanted the 40th anniversary to have the biggest impact possible. Bringing mass audiences to the programme to make them see it in an entirely new light.

But first had to make people tune in, which meant creating a highly marketable, must-see 'event' - a live episode.

Coronation Street and Eastenders have both previously done live episodes but the challenge at Emmerdale was significantly greater as, unlike the other soaps, Emmerdale’s studio and location are miles apart.

During a live episode a character couldn’t be in the pub in one scene and outside the pub in the next, as they could be in the other shows. And the stories and characters couldn’t be split between interior only and exterior only, so the entire episode had to be shot on location, far from the safety of the studio infrastructure - and at the mercy of the weather.

The payback

It was a huge undertaking with a very specific ambition but, thanks to an extremely talented and dedicated team (on the programme, in marketing and in publicity), it was a huge success. A great hour of drama was delivered flawlessly to an audience peaking at 10.2 million and, most significantly, the audience uplift has continued through the four weeks since the anniversary.

On Thursday 15th November, one month after the live episode, a 60’ episode of Emmerdale attracted 7.2 million viewers, whilst Eastenders attracted 4.9m.

Marking the 40th anniversary on screen didn’t change the programme, but it had a huge impact on the programme’s future by bringing new audiences to it and changing perceptions.