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What Have You Been Watching?

Simon Pitt | Television | Saturday 22nd August 2009

BARB, the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, is the organization that records how many people watched each show. Each day BARB releases estimates of how the viewing figures for the previous evening. These are called the "overnights" and are pretty much the most exciting thing in a TV executive's life. Each week, BARB also provides a list of the thirty programmes on each channel.

Top 30 Programmes for the week August 3rd - 9th 2009 (All Channels)

ProgrammeViewers (millions)
CORONATION STREET9.3
CORONATION STREET9.18
EASTENDERS8.2
CORONATION STREET8.01
CORONATION STREET7.91
EASTENDERS7.9
CORONATION STREET7.83
NEW TRICKS7.67
EASTENDERS7.54
EASTENDERS7.47
EMMERDALE6.76
EMMERDALE6.72
EMMERDALE6.51
MIDSOMER MURDERS6.28
EMMERDALE6.27
EMMERDALE5.96
EMMERDALE5.95
HOLBY CITY5.48
RIVERS WITH GRIFF RHYS JONES5.13
GRIMEFIGHTERS4.98
TOTAL WIPEOUT4.81
TEN O'CLOCK NEWS4.79
COUNTRYFILE4.78
TEN O'CLOCK NEWS4.7
THE STREET4.7
BBC NEWS4.61
TEN O'CLOCK NEWS4.6
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?4.55
JAM AND JERUSALEM4.36
THE ONE SHOW4.15

There are only two programmes in the top 18 that are not soaps, New Tricks and Midsomer Murders. Also in the top thirty we have the incomparably stupid Total Wipeout, the pointlessly dire Grimefighters, and a couple of isn't-the-world-interesting-with-celebrities shows: River and Who do you Think you are. The News also makes three entries.

Soaps are TV Executive's bread and butter. They don't have to invest much money in them, but week after week, they bring in the viewing figures. In many ways, this is unsurprising. Soaps are unchallenging, unchanging, addictive viewing. There's a bit of drama, a bit of shouting, a bit of sex, and a bit of scandal (the crucial three S's that all soaps need). They're not great television, but who cares; people watch them.

At the same time, although soaps have kept their number one position, the number of people watching soaps has declined. Compare the viewing figures from August 2009 (above) with August (1999) below:

Top 10 Programmes for the week August 3rd - 9th 1999 (All Channels)

ProgrammeViewers (millions)
EASTENDERS15.63
EASTENDERS15.55
CORONATION STREET15.18
CORONATION STREET14.55
EASTENDERS14.39
EASTENDERS13.8
WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE13.74
CORONATION STREET13.59
CORONATION STREET12.86
EMMERDALE11.42

Soaps are still at the top (along with current flavour of the time Who Wants to Be A Millionaire - yet another embarrassing blip in our cultural history), but the number of people watching soaps today are about half what they were ten years ago.

Now, compare the current viewing figures with last year's Christmas viewing figures:

Top 20 Programmes for the week December 22nd- 28th 2008 (All Channels)

ProgrammeViewers (millions)
WALLACE AND GROMIT16.15
DOCTOR WHO13.1
EASTENDERS11.34
EASTENDERS11.11
THE ROYLE FAMILY10.6
EASTENDERS10.1
CORONATION STREET9.9
CORONATION STREET9.55
STRICTLY COME DANCING9.46
EASTENDERS9.35
BBC NEWS9.34
EASTENDERS8.55
CORONATION STREET8.18
CORONATION STREET8.03
CORONATION STREET8.02
CORONATION STREET7.98
THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS7.73
HAVE I GOT NEWS FOR YOU7.65
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW7.57
FILM: WALLACE GROMIT7.54

The number of people watching Eastenders is up slightly, no doubt due to the prospect of more shouting over Christmas. The number of people watching Coronation Street is largely the same. But, and here's the revolutionary bit, Doctor Who, Wallace and Gromit, The Royal Family and The 39 Steps have attracted millions of additional viewers.

Some people might say that it's unfair to compare Christmas viewing with normal viewing as more people are at home at Christmas and people have more time to watch television. There is an element of truth in this, but look at any point in the schedule when a new programme is on and you will see that exciting new shows gather more viewers. In the next few weeks, for example, I predict that the number of people watching soaps will remain the same, but more people will watch X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing when these two idiot-fests return to our screen.

My point here is this: a certain percentage of the viewing public will always watch soaps. Over the years, as people's viewing habits and lifestyles change, the number of people watching television is decreasing, but, in percentage terms, the number watching soaps remains the same.

When TV is uninspiring, people do not watch it. When it is inspiring, when there are more and better programmes, people watch. The better Christmas television attracts additional viewers. Likewise, addictive junk like X Factor knocks soaps off the top spot, not by taking viewers away from them, but by creating additional ones.

There is an alternative method of judging programmes, called the Audience Appreciation Index. Under this system, viewers are asked to rate a programme from one to ten, and then asked why they watched a programme. The options are:
TV executives have discovered that there are certain times when people want to watch television, and will switch it on, regardless of whatever is on. It is, after all, cheaper to put out throwaway crap than commission new, challenging shows. Moreover, you can rely on the fact that a certain percentage of the population will watch it, just because it is on. Now, again, correct me if I'm wrong here, but this doesn't seem to be a particularly good business model to me. Not only is it a bit exploitative really ("They'll watch any old shit if we broadcast it"), but also this model is in danger of being destroyed as on-demand video becomes available to the average idiot. As this becomes commonplace, more viewers are going to stop tuning it to whatever's on just because it's on and start picking what they want to watch. We've seen in the last few years TV viewing figures decreasing, and this is because more people are hiring and buying DVDs and watching them instead of tuning into whatever is on TV. For some people services like LoveFilm are coming to replace terrestrial TV. It's not going to be long before "because it was on" no longer becomes a reason to turn the TV on, but becomes a reason to turn it off, and look to different ways of getting entertainment content.

The viewing figures for the last couple of months reveal the TV schedules as a bland and insipid landscape, filled with lazy programming and relying on viewers' laziness. No wonder viewers are turning away from the TV schedules when commissioners and schedulers shovel any old rot at them, assuming they're too lazy to put on a DVD. For the time being, this rather cynical business model is working, but I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that this isn't something that's going to last forever. Their time is even more limited since there is a whole raft of companies working on on-demand set top boxes that will make it trivial to watch any programme, rather than just put up with whatever is vomiting out of the TV.

SP



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