A brand launch as big as that of a new iPhone?
That was the description Monday morning on BBC’s Radio 4 network of the unexpectedly high profile casting of an actor in a science fiction TV series which in an age of Twitter-empowered scuttlebutt and speculation defied all expectation and managed to keep a secret from an obsessive fan base until the very last minute.
The casting was that of Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor in Doctor Who. UK and Australian readers will know all about the Doctor and in this day and age of BBC America, it’s probably less necessary to contextualise this than ever before, but just in case, some essential bullet points before we go on.
Doctor Who is the world’s longest running sci-fi TV show, first airing on 23 November 1963 and this year celebrating its 50th anniversary. It’s one of the BBC’s few genuinely global brands, up there with Top Gear as a money-spinner for the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
As such it has become a phenomenally important asset with its own brand manager within the BBC, Edward Russell. Russell explained his role to a Doctor Who fan site as:
“My job is to oversee all of the ‘off screen’ activity. By that, I mean everything to do with Doctor Who that isn’t the 45 minute show that goes out on BBC One. So, I work with the teams who do the publicity, marketing, photos, websites etc. and make sure they have everything they need to do their jobs.
“I also work alongside colleagues at BBC Worldwide who look after the commercial exploitation of Doctor Who, to make sure that anything with the Doctor Who name on it – whether it’s a toy, a book or even promotion of the show overseas – is every bit as brilliant as people expect from Doctor Who.”
It will have been a busy weekend for Russell!
The part of the Doctor, a traveller in space and time whose vehicle is the bigger-on-the-inside-than-it-is-on-the-outside TARDIS which looks like a 1960s police telephone box, was originally played by William Hartnell.
When Hartnell become ill and increasingly difficult to work with on set after three years in the role, the BBC took the immensely brave decision to recast.
But rather than just drop someone else into the role (a la James Bond), the change of face was made an integral part of the storyline with the Doctor ‘regenerating’ into Patrick Troughton.
Since then, nine other actors have taken on the role and regeneration has become an integral part of the show’s longevity.
Every time an actor quits, there is a lot of speculation about who will take over, but in the past the announcement has tended to take the form of a photo-shoot and a press release from the BBC.
Last time around, when David Tennant stepped down, the new boy – Matt Smith – was given a pre-recorded on air announcement. But this weekend – when the successor to Smith was announced – the BBC pulled out all the stops for a pan-global live televised announcement on UK prime time, simulcast in America, Canada and Australia.
Since Smith took over the role four years ago, Doctor Who’s US profile has shot up, with Smith making the cover of the likes of US TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly. So the casting of a new Doctor had never been more of a potentially global event.
This already took the marketing of the new Doctor into a completely new realm – and in an age of Twitter and internet-empowerment for the Doctor’s more obsessive fans, somehow the powers-that-be behind this managed to pull it off.
The identity of the new Doctor was top secret, supposedly (big emphasis on supposedly) known only to ten people. One leak, one wrong-foot and a very expensive ‘brand launch’ of the new guy would have resulted in a very damp and embarrassing squib.
And frankly the omens weren’t necessarily good. Doctor Who – the show – is under immense scrutiny 24/7 from its fan base around the world with every move, every word, every turn of phrase analysed to death on the internet.
Earlier in the year, a sheet of paper at a toy fair in London led to massive outcry from fans when it appeared that a forthcoming 50th anniversary special episode on 23 November this year would be an hour long instead of the 90 minutes most people had assumed.
Cue all hell breaking loose, with the fires fuelled by the BBC’s refusal to comment on the matter on the (not unreasonable) grounds that the special hadn’t even begun filming at that point! (It now looks like it’s 90 minutes after all!).
Then Matt Smith’s departure from the role had to be announced early when an email sent from the BBC to a US partner found its way into the public domain confirming that a new Doctor would be in place in 2014. The genie was out of the bottle and the BBC forced to play its hand before it wanted to.
So the marketing and PR triumph of this weekend is all the more remarkable placed against what some fans have suggested have been less than stellar examples of brand handling in recent months.
The execution of the ‘brand launch’ of Doctor 12 was exemplary, hidden in full view and exploiting the digital marketing potential of the internet to its fullest to build hype around the launch.
The BBC disguised its half hour live launch in the TV listings released to the media as a repeat of the Celebrity Mastermind quiz show.
It invited fans to attend what it called a pilot of a new TV entertainment show, the first edition of which would focus on Doctor Who – a perfectly credible notion in the 50th anniversary year. So, now it had an audience of unsuspecting fans.
The BBC’s own Doctor Who site played its part of course, as befits one of the most active and engaged communities in the BBC’s online portfolio.
Then there was a stumble. Whispers began early last week that something wasn’t right with this ‘pilot show’ and that an announcement was imminent – and when fans start to whisper these days it becomes a bellow on the internet almost instantly.
The secret was ultimately blown by the Metro newspaper in London which broke a midnight embargo on announcing that Celebrity Mastermind was really Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor and published the story on its website in the afternoon. It was rapidly removed, but the page wasn’t cleared from cache and was captured in all its glory by fans and zapped around the world.
But no real harm was done. The BBC now had three days to build a marketing buzz around the launch to justify the cost and the gamble of trying a live, on-air launch of the new Doctor.
And it worked. The mainstream media leapt on the story. Runners and riders were discussed in the press, on the radio, on television. Pundits from fandom, media commentators and betting experts were summoned to radio and TV studios to make their cases.
The only danger now was that the identity of the new actor – code-named “Houdini” among those who knew – would break or be leaked. The need for incredibly tight online security had never been greater.
Every tabloid newspaper in the UK chased the story as Twitter speculation became increasingly frenzied. Doctor Who trended worldwide for three days with claim and counter claim being aired, discussed and dismissed.
Ironically when Sunday came around it was in fact Twitter Silence day – a boycott in protest about abuse on Twitter. Would that disrupt the Who hype building? Of course not. (Being on Who announcement day, the boycott was akin – as one commentator noted – to having the drinks trolley come around at an AA meeting!)
Some of the actors supposedly in the running for the part themselves took part in creating confusion and misdirection. With Doctor Who filmed in Cardiff in Wales, Irish actor Chris O’Dowd – a late favourite at the betting shops – mischievously tweeted:
In the event, the answer had been hidden in plain sight all along with Capaldi – the chosen one – having been the bookies favourite for the previous week, leading some to suspect some form of leak may have occurred.
But right up until the very last, the BBC brand teams managed to use social media to keep the tension high and to keep the audience guessing.
Over the space of 72 hours, a non-publicly scheduled TV programme about the casting of an actor managed to build enough interest to see a peak UK audience of 6.89 million tune in – almost a third of all TV viewers across all channels.
According to stats released to The Drum, the BBC Doctor Who website crashed, with over 800m tweets sent in total around #doctorwho and #petercapaldi, while 89.4% of all conversation on Twitter during the programme transmission was about the new Doctor.
Those are numbers that justify brand manager Russell tweeting:
A marketing and PR triumph for the BBC.
On a par with a new iPhone launch? Maybe a slight exaggeration perhaps.
But Doctor Who is one of the corporation’s few global brands and this weekend gave it the global attention it deserved.
And Peter Capaldi is an excellent choice as the Doctor.
Peter Capaldi image: Rankin/BBC