Channel 4’s new four-part documentary series “The Secret Life of Students” premiered a few months ago on July 3, 2014. The show is produced by multi-award winning production company Raw TV and follows the life of 12 first-year students as they leave home to study at Leicester University, exploring the drama of their new experiences as well as their digital communication.
Before the start of the filming, Channel 4 contacted all 2013/14 undergraduate students at Leicester University and over 20 percent applied to take part. The selected 12 students agreed to use modified iPhones and laptops capturing their digital communication via text messaging or other social media through a specially developed software: Digital-Rig.
‘D-Rig’ took over nine months to develop and was created by series’ production company Raw TV. The challenge was to aggregate all digital activities of the young adults while enabling the producers to create a show based on it. It is the first time such a technology has been used for a British documentary series.
Over the three months filming period and with consent from all sides, the Digital-Rig system collected a total number of more than 200,000 bits of data from the 12 students. All of this communication data was first sent to a secure central server and then delivered to the production team’s office in near real time – 24 hours a day. In addition, all collected data was stored in a searchable database for the duration of the filming. However, each of the student’s contacts first had to give permission for their conversations to be used in the series.
By using the collected data, Channel 4 had the chance to add a completely new narrative to the documentary: The real time display of the protagonists’ digital activity through pop-up bubbles helped to tell the story of each protagonist and turned into one of the key elements of the program.
Alongside the real visual action, viewers saw phone calls, texts, tweets, pictures, videos, web searches and status updates from the students pop up all over the screen. This included whatever the protagonists shared on Facebook, posted on Twitter, searched for on Google, posted on Instagram or texted their friends and family through WhatsApp and iMessage, providing viewers with a deep insight into the students’ hopes and fears.
This showed interesting figures for a few of the students. Among other things, viewers saw 19-year-old Twitter addict Josie, a student of Geography and Geology, sharing over 50,000 Facebook message with her two best friends from abroad during the filming of the series. In the same period of time, 18-year-old Psychology-student Brenda sent an average of 77 tweets a day while History-student Lauren, also 18, even managed to tweet up to a hundred times a day but being only somewhat active on Facebook and Instagram.
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“The Secret Life of Students” aired Thursdays from 10pm to 11.05pm over a period of four weeks. It launched with 844,000 viewers (5.3% audience share) and reached an average of 648,000 viewers (4.1%) throughout the broadcast of series.
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