by Sean O’Keefe
In a year where logging into Netflix has become second nature, you could be forgiven for getting lost in a blur of binges and boxsets. However, one series has succeeded where others have failed, capturing the attention of the nation. Russell T Davies’ critically acclaimed drama ‘It’s A Sin’ follows a group of free-spirited friends, finding their way through early-80s London. Soon having to confront the appalling reality of the AIDS epidemic, the five-part series stars the likes of Olly Alexander, Stephen Fry, Keeley Hawes, Lydia West and Neil Patrick Harris.
Despite the considerable star power, on the surface ‘It’s A Sin’ could have easily been just another Channel 4 drama. So why has the series become the cultural moment that it has, and how has it stayed at the forefront of viewer’s minds?
Simply, it was a masterclass in harnessing the news cycle. We all know the power of a good story in launching a success, however Channel 4 remained agile, evolving a powerful narrative to maximise coverage. This aided in spreading awareness of the show, and consequently HIV and AIDS, outside viewers of the programme. Indeed, ‘It’s a Sin’ has recently began to set the news agenda in its own right, with a record number of HIV tests being attributed to the series.
A Fortunate Accident
With the pandemic continuing to rumble on, it’s hardly surprising that a show about an epidemic piqued interest with viewers. Although, ‘It’s A Sin’ has managed to go one step further – building on simple curiosity by using established events in the news calendar to cement viewership.
Having been pushed back a year due to the pandemic, the show ended up airing just days before National HIV Testing Week. Despite being described as a ‘fortunate accident’ by creators of the show, it ended up being the perfect platform for the series. Thanks to Channel 4’s quick action, the show became a fervent voice for HIV Testing Week. Linking to resources and information about the event, the show’s social media handles became synonymous with the cause. Whilst initially limited to releases and social media posts, this soon developed into creating their own content on the topic. Cast member Nathaniel Hall was interviewed for online and print media, sharing his story of contracting HIV and the realities of the condition. Consequently, the series was able to elevate the narrative of National HIV Testing Week, demonstrating the progress made from when the show is set to the modern day. This symbiotic relationship worked for both Channel 4 and National HIV Testing Week, with each raising the profile of the other.
A reservation brands often have about harnessing the news cycle is longevity. There is often the perception that the news cycle moves too rapidly to engage with it meaningfully. However, Channel 4 proved that by remaining agile, brands can engineer long-term relevance.
In the case of ‘It’s A Sin’, Channel 4 pivoted the dynamic. The show not only utilised current events, it encouraged other brands to use its burgeoning popularity to set the news agenda. This included the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), a group that has been at the forefront of HIV campaigning since 1982. Named after Terrence ‘Terry’ Higgins, who was one of the first people in the UK to die from AIDS, the charity created t-shirts inspired by the show. Designed by Phillip Normal, they feature the series’ now infamous sing-song greeting of ‘La’. Expected to sell in the tens, to date over 9000 have been bought, raising over £150,000 for THT.
This was a marked shift in tactic from Channel 4. Rather than using established talking points, the partnership with THT generated coverage in its own right. Not only did this give greater prominence to the series, it also drove the message of the show outside traditional viewers, increasing brand awareness.
Whilst the news agenda won’t always be as malleable, it shows the opportunity for brands to make the most of current events. After the last year, social issues are an in-demand topic for journalists. Consumers are increasingly engaged with social causes and they want to see this reflected by the brands they engage with. By utilising partners that are experts in their field, brands can bring a credible and established voice to their cause. In the case of ‘It’s A Sin’, the success of THT was picked up by most national and consumer titles, including ‘i’, ‘The Mirror’ and ‘Tyla’. Not only can this style of hijacking have the potential to create a craze, but there is a real opportunity for mainstream media coverage.
The Power Of The News Cycle
In this case, the proof was in the testing. During 2019’s HIV Testing Week, 8068 people checked their HIV status. This year, that number was beaten in just one day. The influx of tests since ‘It’s A Sin’ began meant Public Health England had to order another extra 10,000 tests across Testing Week alone. This was a pivotal success, as the UK aims for zero HIV transmissions by 2030. What makes this success even more remarkable is the effect this tactic has had on the brand. ‘It’s a Sin’ amassed 18.9m views on All 4, in turn becoming the streaming service’s biggest ever instant box set. On Channel 4 it attracted an average 2.3m viewers per episode, with a 10.4% share of the viewing audience at 9pm on Friday nights. The premiere episode was also Channel 4’s biggest drama launch in three years for young viewers, with 18.4% share of 16-34 year old viewers.
This phenomenal success shows just how powerful harnessing the news cycle can be. Your brand doesn’t need to have thousands of followers for your campaign to resonate with an audience, just a strong hook that’s relevant to current events. We’re encouraging brands who may be unsure or nervous about engaging with current affairs to take the leap. The process is rich with opportunities for those that are willing to take the risk, and it’s these companies that will be the ones to reap the benefits.