Wednesday, April 04, 2007

8.2 Million. Is That Any Good?

In keeping with the ratings/audience share/ audience appreciation nature of the last bloggerisation post, here's another one in the same vein.

This blogger get e-mailed at the Beeb occasionally - well, twice so far if he's being completely honest - asking him to explain things like how ratings figures are calculated and what audience share and the AI index are. So, here's a FAQ on exactly that subject which yer actual Keith Telly Topping posts, weekly, onto the Outpost Gallifrey forum.

It's mainly related to Doctor Who's figures but the general principles apply to all shows:

The Unofficial Doctor Who Forum Ratings, Audience Share, AI, scheduling and “future of Doctor Who” FAQ. Ver 4.13 [Last update 5 July 2008]

- What is the purpose of this FAQ

To hopefully prevent any “6.9 million? Is that any good?” and “I read in the Sun that Doctor Who is being cancelled, is this true?” type questions.

- What are these “ratings figures”?

An indication of the total number of people who watched a particular television show.

- How are ratings figures calculated?

That’s quite a complex question to answer in just a few short words.

- Do TV companies ask everyone in country what they watched? Or, do all TV sets have a little black box inside them that transmits whatever I’m watching to some Big Brother-type-geezer in a bunker in Whitehall who collates this information for nefarious skulduggery…?

No. And no.

- What’s the deal, then…?

Television ratings are calculated through a process called “random sampling.”

Across the country approximately 11,500 viewers in over 5,100 homes – covering various widespread demographic, social and occupational groups - provide a company called the B.A.R.B (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) with details of which television shows they watch - and when they watch them - via an electronic control box.

Any programme watched in a B.A.R.B household for more than 15 minutes are thus part of the ratings. From the supplied statistics, ratings figures are extrapolated.

- So if there are, say, four people in a household that’s part of the B.A.R.B survey group and the TV is tuned to BBC1 for more than 15 minutes, are all four of those people counted as "viewers" of that particular show?

Those households which are part of the B.A.R.B. survey, as noted, have an electronic control box to store data on what programmes they watch. They also have to feed in the precise number of viewers for each programme that they watch.

Such boxes have a button for each regular viewer within the household – remember, we’re talking about an average of 2.3 people per household. This has to be pressed to register that an individual is watching a particular show. There is also a facility to add any guests who happen to be at the householder’s gaff which requires specific details of the age and gender of such non-regular viewers.

The moral of this story is, therefore, if you find out that someone you know (even vaguely) is part of the B.A.R.B survey, make an excuse to be around their drum at 7pm on a Saturday and make damn certain that they’re tuned to BBC One.

- I heard in 2005 that the episode ‘Rose’ got nine million viewers. But, then I saw later that a figure of over ten million was being widely quoted. Which of these two figures was correct?

They both were.

Initial ratings for all TV shows are announced usually on the morning after an episode has first broadcast. These are called “overnights” in the industry and are, essentially, exactly that; a rough initial estimate figure based on the number of people who said that they watched the show as it was being broadcast.

However, some viewers choose to record TV programmes on video or recordable DVD (or on one of those flashy SkyPlus-box-thingies which I don’t know how to operate) to watch some time later because they are out at the time or they are watching something on another channel or, simply, because they are doing something else entirely.

These are called “time-shift” viewers and are, subsequently, added to the initial overnight figure.

Ten days after it has been broadcast, a Doctor Who episode’s final – consolidated - ratings figure will be given.

During the 2006 season of Doctor Who, for example, on average the overnight figure raised by between six and seven hundred thousand viewers per episode for the final ratings figure thanks to such time-shifts. In 2007 this figure was lower (possibly due to the "safety net" for viewers of a regular Sunday night repeat on BBC3 - see below.) This year we’re back up to 2006 levels again.

It’s also worth pointing out that overnight ratings use a slightly smaller sample of the audience than the consolidated figures. That’s why it is possible for the final ratings figure to – on odd occasions – actually be lower than the overnights.

This rarely happens because any discrepancy is usually cancelled out by time-shifting. However for live events, like the News or the National Lottery, which people are unlikely to record, the final figure can sometime be lower than the overnight figure.

- The five minute breakdowns for last night’s audience appear to suggest that a large section of the audience turned off Doctor Who shortly before it ended. What’s all that about?

Actually, they don’t.

Five minute breakdowns tell you what the average audience was for a show in five minute chunks. You’ll see them presented as following

18:55 - 8.83m
19:00 - 9.05m

That means between 18:55 and 18:59 and 59 seconds an average of 8.83 million people were watching and between 19:00 and 19:04 and 59 seconds an average of 9.05 million were watching.

What often happens with the last five minutes of a Doctor Who episodes is that you’ll get something like

19:05 - 7.90m

Whereby it appears that the show has suddenly lost a million viewers during the final moments.

However, what has actually happened is that the show has finished sometime during a five minute period, not right at the end of it (say 19:07 or 19:08). The audience figure, however, remains an average taken right across the five minutes. Obviously, as soon as Doctor Who ends, some viewers will decide to immediately switch over to another channel (possibly to BBC3 to watch Doctor Who Confidential).

- So, ratings tell you whether an episode of a TV Series was any good?

No, they don’t do that. They do, however, tell you whether it was popular.

A slightly different factor, but an important one nonetheless.

- Last night’s episode of Doctor Who got five/six/seven/eight/nine million viewers. Is that good?

That’s also a hard question to answer in just a sentence – although the likely answer is very much “yes”.

- Why is it a hard question to answer?

Because a raw ratings figure provides no overall context.

Let’s put it this way, if I was to say to you “Show X got an audience of four million last night, is it a hit or a miss?” the answer to that question is wholly dependent on, for example, when in the year it was shown.

Consider the following:

- Four million viewers on a Monday night in the middle of summer is a pretty decent ratings figure.
- Four million viewers at peak time on a Saturday night in the middle of winter would be a ratings disaster.
- Four million viewers on a digital-only channel would be the biggest audience in the history of that particular part of the medium.
- Four million viewers for an episode of Coronation Street would be one of the smallest audiences in the history of that show.

… and so on.

Raw figures can tell you a lot but, sometimes, they can tell you next to nothing.

The best way to work out if a ratings figure is good, bad or any number of shades of grey in between, is to take it in conjunction with the audience share.

- What’s the audience share?

The audience share is the percentage of the total number of viewers watching television at any one time that watched one particular programme.

If, for example, there are only fifteen million people watching TV at a given time then your show is not going to get ten million of them. We live in a multi-channel age, it’s very rare the days for shows to get even 50% of available viewers.

[Note: On Christmas Day 2007, both Doctor Who and EastEnders achieved a 50%+ Audience Shares. Just to illustrate how unusual that is, those was just the fourth and fifth occasions during the entire TV year of 2007 that any show broke the 50% barrier.]

In blunt terms - in relation to drama at least - anything with an audience share at or above 30% is considered a success within the industry.

Doctor Who writer Matt Jones - who has worked extensively within TV production over the last few years - has noted that on any occasion when a programme achieves an audience share of above 30% “champagne corks will be popping in the production office.”

To date, the lowest audience share that any Doctor Who episode has achieved since it returned to the BBC in March 2005 is 25%. Most Doctor Who episode audience shares have been closer to 35 – 40% (and, on one occasion, 50%) which are extraordinary figures for this day and age.

- So, the audience share is more important than the ratings?

No. They’re both important figures. But, when taken together, they tell a much more accurate story than separately.

- So why don’t the BBC put Doctor Who on during the winter, it would surely get higher ratings that way?

It possibly would but that’s not, necessarily the BBC’s main objective.

This is a tricky subject to discuss dispassionately because most people on this forum approach scheduling with a, somewhat faux-naïf emotional head on rather than a more logical approach:

To be blunt, there IS – quite clearly - a finite audience for Doctor Who. 'Voyage of the Damned' have proved that. There are a lot of people out there in audienceland who wouldn't watch Doctor Who if it was on opposite The News in Welsh and all the other TV stations closed down early to make way for it.

The argument for putting the show on during the winter seems to run something like this: "If we're getting eight million in April and May imagine what we'd be getting in January." If we're completely honest, we'd probably still be getting about eight million!

Whilst Doctor Who is one of the most important things in the world to us lot, it's ONLY ONE SHOW to the BBC (albeit, a very successful and profitable one).

The BBC could - in theory - move Doctor Who to January and possibly put another million on the audience. We’ll ignore, for a moment, the utter logistical nightmare of having to change productions dates to accommodate such a move.

But, from the BBC's point of view the equation is a complete no-brainer. They have a show that is doing fantastically well - in a traditionally very-hard-to-do-well-in slot. Do the BBC move Doctor Who to earlier in the year with no obvious replacement for its current slot? Or, do they leave it exactly where it is and hope they get the same result next year?

- Doctor Who is repeated on one of the BBC’s digital channels, is it not?

Twice, in fact, on BBC3. Once on the Sunday immediately after transmission and again the following Friday.

- Are the ratings for those broadcasts counted in with the overnights or the consolidated ratings figures to give one big super-dooper over-all total?

No - although you can be certain the BBC are not unaware of the numbers these repeats are pulling in (particularly the Sunday evening one which in 2007 was getting – in BBC3 terms, at least – amazing figures of over one million per episode).

Internal research carried out by the BBC suggests that an average of between 90 and 95% of viewers for these repeats are “new” viewers as opposed to “repeat” viewers.

So, if you want to do it yourself, just add about 90% of whatever the two repeat figures are to the consolidated figure and you’ve got a rough idea of how many people watched a particular episode in total. That figure is called an episode’s “reach.”

It would appear that many people these days are using the Sunday BBC3 repeat as, in effect, a “safety net” in case they’re out on Saturday and thus miss first transmission.

That’s yet another reason why an overnight ratings figure of, say, 5.4 or 6.2 million for an episode in the middle of a very hot May or June shouldn’t, necessarily, be regarded as disappointing.

Occasional fluctuations in Doctor Who's rating figures during 2006, 2007 and 2008 say far more about exterior factors like the uniquely hot springs Britain experienced in those years than they do about anything related to television itself.

- I just don’t get these excuses about the weather. Surely people know what time the show is on and, regardless of the weather, if they want to watch it they will?

That ignores one basic truism - most of the core audience of Doctor Who are not rabid fanpersons like us lot but rather “normal people” who sometimes have “other things to do” than to make sure they're in the house when a television show starts.

On the other hand, they do – apparently - have alternative of watching TV than "being there at the time" such as the previously mentioned video or DVD recorder or SkyPlus boxes or online, via iPlayer. Or, they are aware that the episode will be repeated twice in the next six days on BBC3 (once, within 26 hours of the first transmission).

It’s a horrible thing for many of us to accept but - it would appear - not everyone's entire life is structured around the broadcast times for Doctor Who.

- Too Sunny, Less Share?

C’est la vie. Babe.

- Why was the first half of this series broadcast before 7 o’clock? What were the BBC playing at?

Ask the BBC. It is, after all, their show. Ultimately, they can broadcast it wherever the hell they want to.

This decision would appear to have been an experiment by the BBC to see if they could kick-off the evening with a big audience and then retain the bulk of it for later – especially given where ITV have scheduled one of their big-hitters, Britain’s Got Talent.

Early indications are that whilst Doctor Who’s audience decreased after a huge opening couple of weeks on overnights, the following show - I’d Do Anything – greatly benefitted from having such a strong lead-in.

A 6:20 start for Doctor Who makes sense to the BBC because it increases the amount of Saturday night that the BBC have a ratings lead over ITV. Having Doctor Who on at seven o’clock is good for Doctor Who but it isn't, necessarily, for the BBC. Or, at least, it isn't as good as having two shows - Doctor Who and whatever follows it - beating their ITV opposition instead of Doctor Who winning its later slot but whatever precedes it getting crushed.

It's about maximising your audience right across the night, not just in one 45 minute slot. So, whilst the Beeb will certainly be glad Doctor Who’s doing so well, they mightn’t be quite as happy overall as we are.

- What about BBC’s iPlayer

This is the first season to be broadcast since the introduction of iPlayer. Although exact figures are only available in fortnightly chunks at present figures for the early episodes of the season indicate an average iPlayer audience of approximately 500,000 per episode.

- Any of the other ratings figures I should keep my eye open for?

The Under 16s – usually in the 1.5 million range. That’s an absolutely key-demographic for Doctor Who. And a very successful one.

- So, what about the AI figure I keep hearing about?

AI stands for “Appreciation Index.”

Again, this is a statistic arrived at through random sampling. What it basically boils down to is a bunch of people who watched a particular show are asked how much they liked it (or, indeed, didn’t like it) and give it marks out of ten accordingly.

GFK NOP Media supply the BBC Audience Research Unit with data measuring audience response to all terrestrial and selected non-terrestrial television programmes. The panel consists of 15,000 adults and a separate panel of 1,500 children.

These responses are particularly useful for TV companies concerning shows from niché markets –shows which do not get massive ratings figures or audience share but which do have a very good reception from those people who watch them. Nature programmes and things like Time Team or Qi are classic examples of the type of shows for whom the Appreciation Index could have been specifically designed.

It is, therefore, perfectly possible for a show to have received what in other circumstances could be considered decidedly average ratings but to still be regarded as “successful” within the industry if their AI figure is consistently good. Many of the American import shows on Sky One and Five, for instance - Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Bones, Prison Break and the various CSI shows – often get AI figures around the 90 mark, albeit with a small, but very dedicated, audience.

It's rather more unusual for a series to be very popular in ratings terms but also to get excellent AI figures, although Doctor Who, Waking the Dead, Spooks and Top Gear are examples of BBC shows which regularly achieve just that.

An AI figure is calculated from responses and is presented as a score out of 100 (not as a percentage as often incorrectly stated).

- What’s a “good” AI figure?

To quote, directly, from The BBC Producers Guide to AI

“The average AI is in the mid 70s, between 73 and 76.”

[Footnote: The average AI score for drama shows is slightly higher - seemingly around 77 or 78. In 2007 I saw an internal BBC memo relating to the first episode of Jekyll having received an AI score of 79 which the memo described as “slightly below average for drama in this slot.” This suggests that the top end of “average” AI for certain drama slots can be as high as 80 and that the science of analysing AI scores – like that of ratings analysis - is evolving all the time.]

“The top ranked programme over the last five years (1999-2004) has been a 92 with the lowest recorded score a 29.”

[Another footnote: Since this was written there have been a couple of cases of shows achieving a score lower than 29 and on 7 October 2007 an episode of The Sopranos on E4 received a mind-boggling AI score of 96. The highest AI score for an episode of Doctor Who currently stands at 94 for a repeat of ‘Utopia’ on BBC3 during early 2008.]

“Any score in excess of 85 is excellent. Any score in excess of 90 is exceptional.

Any programme that falls below 60 has received a poor AI. Any score below 55 is very poor.”

Since Doctor Who returned in March 2005, the lowest recorded overnight AI figure for a first night broadcast of an episode has been and “slightly-below-average-but-still-nowhere-near-bad” 76 (for 'Love and Monsters') and the highest an exceptional 91 (for both ‘The Stolen Earth’ and 'Journey's End').

In 2007, Doctor Who received AI figures consistently in the mid-to-top-80s (it averaged 86.5 across the whole season) a pattern repeated – and, remarkably, slightly improved upon - in 2008.

It has been speculated that these days Doctor Who may be largely the recipient of a “brand vote” from many AI jurists – that is, a standard, default “eight-out-of-ten” score based on their general appreciation of the show as an entity rather than of a particular episode’s worth, per se.

The fact that episodes like ‘Partners in Crime’ and 'The Unicorn And The Wasp' – which (to a small degree) split opinion within fandom - all seemed equally popular with the general public as fan-adored episodes such as ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Blink’ may say far more about Doctor Who fandom than it does about the GP.

- All of this would appear to suggest that Doctor Who is currently doing “very well”?

That would, indeed, seem to be correct.

The BBC have invested a huge amount of time and resources not only in the show itself but also in various spin-offs (Doctor Who Confidential, Torchwood, Sarah Jane Interferes) and in its - very profitable - associated merchandising.

During most weeks when it is broadcast, Doctor Who is in the Top Ten most watched shows on British television – on occasions it has even been in the Top Three – with only the country’s two most popular soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders gaining higher ratings.

Taking ratings scores for multi-episode shows separately, Doctor Who has only been outside the Top 20 most watched episodes of the week on British TV on a handful of occasions out of its first 50 episodes and never outside the Top 30.

For the last three years between April and July Doctor Who has largely dominated the Saturday TV night schedules, almost every week being the single highest rated show (drama or otherwise) of the night and with the highest audience share, beating such well-regarded series as the BBC’s flagship medical drama Casualty. Apart from one week - in June 2008 when it went head-to-head the final of Britain’s Got Talent - it has comfortably seen off everything that ITV have tried opposite it, including such popular ratings successes as Ant and Dec's Saturday Takeaway and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. And, for two Christmas Days running, the hugely popular soap opera Emmerdale.

(When when it was up against Britain's Got Talent, Doctor Who still managed an overnight audience of almost five and a half million and an overnight 25% audience share. Both of which were seen as hugely disappointing by some fans but which, in isolation, would have still be excellent figures for any other drama show in any slot across the week.)

Put it another way, there's approximately 65 million people in the UK. An average Doctor Who episodes gets a reach audience somewhere in the region of eight to nine million viewers (including viewers of the BBC3 repeats and time-shifts). Going off simple mathematics, that's approximately 12% of the population or, one in every eight people.

[Just to boggle your mind even further, the Christmas 2007 episode, ‘Voyage of the Damned’ was watched by approximately 13 million viewers. Or, roughly, one-in-five of the entire population of the UK.]

That Christmas Day 2007 episode of Doctor Who was the second most watched bit of British television in the entire year (beaten only by the episode of EastEnders that immediately followed it).

The ratings-spanking that Doctor Who gave Celebrity Wrestling in April and May 2005 also remains a television industry legend to this day and the cause of much celebration from those of us who feel that drama should always out-perform dumbed-down, crass, lowest-common-denominator reality TV.

Doctor Who, in additional to being a huge commercial success has also been critically acclaimed by numerous reviewers in the popular, the quality and the genre press and has won BAFTA, National Television, Royal Television Society and Hugo awards and several other popular polls.

So, that would appear to be a cautious “yeah, it’s doing all right…”

- So, what’s the deal with Season Five?

That was formally commissioned by the BBC in August 2007 and had already been budgeted. It will be filmed during summer and autumn of 2009 and broadcast in spring 2010.

- Why the year long gap?

That is the source of some considerable debate – among fandom and elsewhere.

Speculation suggests it was designed that way to allow David Tennant the time to fulfil other acting roles and, also, to give the production team a breather. However, in a radio interview in April 2008 David Tennant stated that he was spending six months doing Shakespeare because the production of Doctor Who was taking a break rather than the other way round.

Whatever the reason, this gap will be - partially - filled by a series of three Doctor Who “special” episodes which will be filmed early in 2009 and broadcast later in the year.

Remember, if you’re thinking about getting a stroppy chimney-on over your lack of a full season in 2009 - as though the BBC owes you a personal debt to produce fourteen episodes of Doctor Who every year come what may - on 1 June 2007, the BBC issued a press statement which concluded: "The BBC has a long-term commitment to Doctor Who.”

- What about season Six then?

I’d probably expect an announcement about the formal commissioning of a sixth season sometime during early 2010.

Russell Davies recently noted in the Doctor Who magazine that Doctor Who’s position has never been more secure within the BBC than it is right at this moment and that it will be for a very long time to come.

- What happens now, then?

The Doctor and the Cybermen will return on Christmas Day 2008.
Remember, if anyone has any queries regarding how TV statistics work - particularly if it's related to anything that this blogger features on his daily Top Telly Tips preview slot on Radio Newcastle - just drop an e-mail to and I'll do my best to answer it - on-air if it's a good one.