Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Dub Plate Drama

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Luke Hyams, the creator of ‘Dub Plate Drama’ and listening to an excellent talk he gave about his work. It is interesting that everyone I have mentioned the programme to has simply looked at me quizzically as they’ve never heard of it, yet at its peak it attracted an extraordinary 450,000 viewers on Channel 4, after midnight, with many more catching it on PSP, MTV Base and MySpace. The programme has slipped under the radar of older viewers yet at the session where I heard Luke speak, there were dozens of students asking him questions about it who clearly knew the series well. I had only heard of it previously when one of my students chose to use it as the focus for their Critical research project in the old A level; I felt quite guilty having to ask the boy, Moses, to repeat the title several times as I thought he must be mistaken. It was only on looking further that I realised what an interesting media text he had selected.

Luke talking about his work

link to to buy it

Dub Plate Drama is an example of ‘transmedia’, a cross-platform/multiplatform text, delivered through a number of different ways. It was originally shown three times a week on Channel 4 and seven times a week on E4 and MTV base and available throughout the week via MySpace. The programme is based around the lives of characters trying to break into the music industry and the ways in which violence, drugs and other issues impinge upon them. It featured many up and coming young artist from the black music scene, notably Shystie, who was the star of the first series. Luke told us that the series set out to be socially relevant and responsible, with a ‘do the right thing’ character at its centre. Episodes had an interactive element with the audience offered the opportunity to decide between two alternative endings each week. As I noted earlier, at its peak, one episode drew 450,000 viewers after midnight on Channel 4, though this was perhaps as a result of the audience for a comedy film preceding it staying watching, but even on an average week it picked up 150,000 viewers for this slot, which was more than healthy. Adding the viewers from other platforms, the regular audience was in excess of half a million.

The two choices each episode tended to be ‘Most dramatic option’ v ‘What would you personally probably do?’, so for example in an episode where a character’s disabled mum sees her son being attacked by a gang outside the house, the choice was whether to go out and try to help but risk getting battered herself or wait for the police to arrive. The audience often tended to vote for the more cautious option, which as luke explained, was a shame as in this instance, seeing the mother go out brandishing her walking stick and whacking the attackers was more dramatically exciting!

One of the challenges the programme faced was attracting sponsors for something that dealt with issues and characters which generally had a bad image in the press- hooded black youth, knife and gun crime were seen by many potential sponsors as something they would not want to touch. This was compounded when one of the actors who played a leading character from series 1 was convicted for murder in real life. However, sponsorship for the third series arrived in an unexpected form, with Childline. The charity coincidentally was trying to shift its image and predominant user base to connect with hard to reach groups; it was seen as white and middle class and also there for females. By careful association with the programme using idents and mini- ads featuring the characters, they managed to shift this image and from almost 100% of phone calls being from females, they moved to 50% from males seeking help- a remarkable change. Scripts were pitched to Childline before each episode and they particularly liked the audience involvement in deciding the dilemma.

Lots of black music artists have appeared on the programme, including N-Dubz and Ms Dynamite, as well as others who were more up and coming and have since gone on to greater fame. Though there is interest in franchising the programme with a US version, there are no plans to run it again in the UK. You can buy both series one and two on DVD online (very cheaply!) at or Amazon and still see episodes on MySpace. Though it is no longer possible to influence the outcome of episodes, Luke did explain that they would shoot several minutes of each of the two possible outcomes for the next episode each time and that certain features from the edit thereafter would be different according to the choice the audience made. In at least one instance, the choice made resulted in a chain of events which led to the death of a key character- though the audience did not know this would happen when they made their decision.

Dub Plate Drama would be a really useful case study for both the Collective Identity topic and for Media in the Online Age.

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