Last week saw the soap opera Eastenders celebrate its 30th anniversary with a week-long series of live episodes. Building on the success of a one-off live episode for the soap’s 25th birthday celebrations in 2010 (which attracted a total audience of 19.9million viewers), the show dedicated five episodes to the live elements of the show. Four of the episodes featured live inserts alongside previously filmed segments whilst the final episode of the week (aired on Friday 20th February) was entirely live. This offered audiences an entire ‘Live Week’ which solved the long-running mystery storyline of who killed the character Lucy Beale. Included alongside the live elements was a flashback episode which revealed Lucy’s killer, whilst the anniversary celebrations also involved spin-off shows such as BBC3’s countdown of the Eastenders character with the most dramatic cliffhangers at the end of the episodes and digital i-Player only shorts ‘Eastenders: Back To Ours’ which features the show’s actors commenting re-watching their classic scenes and commenting on these. The hype around the Live Week has been heavily promoted as the first of its kind in television history. The BBC’s own Eastenders website sees Charlotte Moore, Controller BBC One claimed that “BBC One will mark the 30th Anniversary of its flagship series with the most ambitious week of live television drama ever attempted,” whilst the show’s Executive Producers Dominic Treadwell-Collins promised that “As we celebrate our 30th anniversary, we have set ourselves an enormous challenge – a week of live scenes, a form-breaking flashback, a live episode, story twists that will leave a lump in the throat and a few moments that will elicit genuine gasps from our audience”.
The Eastenders: Live Week event has much to tell us about contemporary media. It feeds into a current preoccupation with archiving and remembering television’s own heritage and the celebration of anniversaries, whether this is the tenth anniversary of the end of the American sitcom Friends or the announcement of the return of mystery-drama series Twin Peaks in 2016, 25 years after it originally ended. Eastenders is not the only soap to have aired live episodes. The first was Coronation Street which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2000 in this way and its 50th in 2010, followed by the 40th anniversary of Emmerdale in 2012. As noted above, Live Week is not the first time Eastenders has offered live episodes; in addition to its 25th anniversary it also went live again in July 2012 as part of the London Olympics celebrations with the final seven minutes of an episode devoted to character Billy Mitchell carrying the Olympic Torch through London. The celebration of key soap anniversaries and events highlights television’s own desire to commemorate and mark special occasions. Soap opera is uniquely suited to this type of event since it is ongoing over long periods of time; its routines and schedules mirror the lives of the audiences and events such as Eastenders’ Live Week work to remind audiences of their own lifespans and allow them to reflect on their engagement with these types of serial narrative. BBC3’s companion show ‘Eastenders: 30 Years of Cliffhangers’ offers this type of pleasure by reminding viewers of 100 of the key characters from the soap’s history, allowing them to remember and reminisce about iconic moments from the programme.
However, Live Week also speaks to the importance of television as-it-happens, allowing audiences a sense of shared viewing and a collective experience that has often been thought of as lacking in the era of on-demand television and time-shifting of viewing. Live Week aimed to bring audiences together to watch the narratives of Eastenders unfold together. The promise of shocking revelations made by the production team encouraged viewers to commit to watching the show as it aired; to catch up later on i-Player or the Sunday omnibus exposed viewers to potentially being ‘spoiled’ and seeing information about the episodes before they could watch them, but it also threatened to remove them from the shared experience of viewing at the same time as other members of the audience. This imagined audience of fellow viewers offers the sense that Live Week was an important television event which had to be experienced alongside fellow viewers. Much like media events such as the London Olympics and the Royal Wedding, this shared collective viewing offers unique viewing opportunities and pleasures that the ordinary episodes of Eastenders do not. Live Week was marketed as unmissable, as ambitious and as a unique moment in television history. It is no coincidence that the official hashtag #EELIVE was heavily promoted to encourage viewers to Tweet their reactions as they watched., a strategy that appeared to succeed with the show breaking Twitter records during the reveal of Lucy’s killer.
However, Twitter had offered an ongoing connection throughout the Live Week, allowing viewers to discuss narrative twists and turns and, when actors made mistakes in the live sections of episodes, to comment on these in a humorous fashion. Perhaps most notable was the response to actress Jo Joyner’s slip of the tongue and her on-screen reference to Adam Woodyatt, the actor who plays Ian Beale, rather than the character himself. The #howsadam hashtag demonstrated playful online response to this live mistake:
Alongside the presence of i-Player-only para-texts such as ‘Back To Ours’, the emphasis on social media speaks to the importance of digital technologies in creating and promoting content for contemporary popular TV. It is no longer enough to try to attain high audience figures – and aiming to beat the 19.9 million viewers of Eastenders’ 25th anniversary – but, now, those audiences need to be discussing, reacting, crying and gasping along with one another online as well.