Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Too Sunny, Less Share

This is what I believe they call in the industry a 'think piece.' It first appeared (in a heavily edited form) in an issue of TV Zone in the summer of 2008.

What is a 'good' ratings figure for your favourite television show to aspire to, dear blog reader? It's a good question, isn't it? Let me put it this way, if I was to say to you 'Show X got an audience of four million last night - does that mean it's a hit or a miss?' the answer to that question is wholly dependent on all sorts of other factors being taken into account. Consider the following, for instance:

- Four million viewers for a show broadcast on a Monday evening in the middle of summer is a pretty damn decent ratings figure.
- Four million viewers for a show broadcast at peak time on a wet Saturday night in the middle of winter would probably be considered a disappointment.
- Four million viewers for a programme shown on a freeview or digital channel would be one of the ever 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 would likely have alarm bells ringing so loudly in Granada's head office that you could hear them, clearly, in London.

… and so on and so on. Raw figures can tell you a lot of stuff but, often, stripped of their context they can tell you next to nothing.

Doctor Who is back on your TV screens - you've probably noticed. It's got Catherine Tate in it and everything. You may also have spotted, however, some minor controversy over the scheduled broadcast time for the current series. The announcement that the BBC intended to transmit Doctor Who - for at least the first half of this season - at or around 6:20pm (forty minutes earlier than its traditional slot in previous two years) sent some Internet message boards into a virtual meltdown and saw the BBC allegedly 'bombarded' (at least according to one national newspaper) with 'furious complaints' from fans frothing at the mouth over such an outrageous happenstance. In actual fact, according to the BBC Press Office during the fortnight leading up to and immediately after the broadcast of the opening episode (Partners In Crime), in April, the BBC received approximately one hundred and ten comments (via e-mail, telephone and letter) regarding the scheduling of Doctor Who – and not all of them were critical. However, Russell Davies, for one, was clearly miffed that his show, an acknowledged BBC flagship, after all, was seemingly being treated less than kindly in favour of other shows with a much smaller fan-base. Davies pointed to the fact that whenever Doctor Who had previously been moved to an earlier time slot (during Eurovision, for example) it had lost viewers accordingly.

The BBC's rationale for the change was obvious – they saw that Doctor Who's 'audience reach' (that is, the total audience for the show on first broadcast on BBC1, plus the addition of time-shift viewers, BBC3 repeat viewers and, a new factor this year, iPlayer downloads) has tended to remain pretty much consistent over the past three years. It gets around about eight million viewers every week. Sometimes it's a bit more, sometimes a bit less but usually the audience is somewhere in that sort of ballpark. Yes, if Doctor Who is shown before 7pm then the on-the-night audience does tend to go down – however, this is usually compensated by higher than average time-shift figures whilst the Sunday evening BBC3 repeat often gets a bumper audience too. Thus, having Doctor Who on at 6:20 made much sense, strategically, to the BBC since it provided them with a big launch pad for the rest of their Saturday evening line-up – and a very useful lead-in show for I’d Do Anything which took the seven o'clock slot and, as a consequence, faced stronger opposition, in the shape of All Star Mr & Mrs, which began its own run a week after Doctor Who with respectable ratings of five million.

Writing in the Guardian, Mark Lawson noted that 'For a Time Lord who has travelled millions of years, a week shouldn't make much difference. But … we have been caught up in a battle between terrestrials and extraterrestrials over the future of television.' The disagreement between the BBC and Russell Davies, Lawson added, 'touches on a significant argument about the way TV should be consumed. As frequently in entertainment, there's a generational divide.' Davies, Lawson noted, represents that generation of TV professionals who grew up during a time when everyone watched a programme at the same time, 'with no possibility of recording - and feel nostalgia for this sense of national unity. The rival group, many of whom spent a formative part of their adulthood at Canadian festivals on "the future of broadcasting", argue that technology makes viewers their own schedulers, able to watch Sunday peak-time dramas at 3am if they so choose. These evangelists for time-shifting have considerable evidence on their side.'

Of course, when the figures for Partners In Crime rolled in – 8.4 million overnight viewers and a near forty per cent audience share – everyone was delighted (apart, seemingly, from a few malcontents who'd predicted the end of civilisation as we know it and were, seemingly, pure dead pissed off when that didn't happen). Though, as Lawson concluded, 'Beneath the argument over when the Time Lord should be seen, is a much deeper discussion … The figures for his first appearance show that technology has not killed communality yet.'

But, what a difference a month makes. As anyone who indulges in the highly entertaining spectator sport of TV ratings-watching will know, a combination of four successive unseasonably warm Saturday evenings in April and early May proceeded to wipe two-and-a-half million viewers off the good Doctor's on-the-night radar. Some of these viewers would have gone anyway, of course, and various mitigating factors were dutifully noted quite aside from the sunshine - and the British public's apparent obsession with having a barbecue every time the temperature raises above freezing point. There had been similar occasional overnight fluctuations in Doctor Who's rating figures during both the 2006 and 2007 seasons which, it was noted, seemed to say far more about exterior factors - like the two uniquely hot springs Britain had experienced during those years - than they did about either television or, indeed, about the show itself. Now, there's a headline just waiting to be written - DOCTOR WHO CLOBBERED BY GLOBAL WARMING! Something which, of course, an average of seven million Doctor Who fans sitting in their home on a sunny Saturday evening instead of switching off their nasty carbon-emission producing TV sets and getting out into the nice fresh air is not doing a whole hell of a lot to rectify. According to, you know, people with beards who claim to know about these things. So, there's the ultimate irony, it would appear - the way to higher ratings for your favourite series is ... to stop everybody from watching it.

Anyway, back to Doctor Who. The show's overall reach remained reasonably consistent during this period fluctuating by no more than a few hundred thousand viewers each week, with very high time-shift figures for episodes like Planet Of The Ood and truly staggering figures for iPlayer usage (up to half-a-million views per episode for a system still in the process of learning to crawl, let alone walk). But when episode five, The Poison Sky, dipped below the magical 'six million on-the-night' audience (the overnight ratings were actually 5.9 million) panic set in among a small, but very vocal, proportion of the series' rabid fandom. It didn't matter one iota that, on the same day, Britain’s Got Talent (the night's highest-rated show by a huge distance) saw its own audience fall by almost two million from the previous week's ovenright figure. Or that Doctor Who's 5.9 million audience that night made it the BBC's highest-rated drama show of the week, achieving exactly the same audience as that gained by another of the BBC’s most prestige drama shows, Waking The Dead, in its nine o'clock Tuesday slot. Or that Doctor Who beat, by over one million viewers, the audience for the opening episode of The Invisibles – quite possibly the most trailed series in the history of television. All of that was, of course, utterly meaningless – 5.9 million meant that the sky was falling and Doctor Who's cancellation could be only a matter of moments away. Then, a week later, The Doctor's Daughter put seven hundred thousand punters back on the ratings in a marginally (twenty five minutes) later time slot and the – seemingly now annual – panic was over. Until the next time. Which, as it happened, was just a fortnight later when, after a week's break for Eurovision (something that Russell Davies had petitioned for the previous year), the BBC switched Doctor Who back to seven o'clock just as many of the fans had been begging them to do for eight weeks. And, of course, that meant it went straight into a head-to-head fight with the final of Britain’s Got Talent. The result was, perhaps, inevitable – Britain’s Got Talent - eleven million overnight viewers, Doctor Who - five and a half million overnight viewers, fandom apoplexy and hand-flapping, bowel-dribbling panic - at an all time high. Until the following week when the second part of Steven Moffat's Library two-part story faced far weaker opposition (Portugal versus Turkey in Euro 2008) and achieved a comfortable seven million. At which point the vast majority of those who had been confidently predicting the end was nigh and that they'd been right all along and how dare anyone suggest that one less than average week in the ratings didn't mean the sky was falling were, curiously, now keeping a very low profile. By the end of the season, of course, just as in 2006 and 2007, the ratings were up near ten million and the champagne corks were popping in fandomland. Crisis? What crisis?

This is, I think it's fair to say, an extremely tricky subject to discuss dispassionately because most TV viewers approach the scheduling of their favourite shows with a, somewhat faux-naïf emotional head on rather than a more logical one. Whilst, for instance Doctor Who is one of the most important things in the whole wide world to British Telefantasy fandom (and, hey, this blogger counts himself as a fully paid up member of that collective), it's still only one show to the BBC - albeit, a very successful and hugely profitable one.

One has to look at a broader picture than simply 'what's good for Doctor Who is good for the BBC.' Because, in the great scheme of things that isn't, necessarily, true. From the BBC's point of view in the case of Doctor Who 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 – and one that has, as a bonus, absolutely crucified almost everything that ITV has ever put up against it (one week against Britain's Got Talent nothwithstanding). So, do the BBC move the show to somewhere else with no obvious replacement for its current slot and with no guarantee that the audience it has built up will follow it to wherever it's going? Or, do they leave it exactly where it is and hope they get the same result next year?

The comparison with Waking The Dead is an interesting one. Due to certain production delays the 2008 series of the popular cold case crime-drama was scheduled for later in the year than previously. In 2007, when it began in January, Waking The Dead was a banker for an average audience of around eight million on Sunday and Monday nights. This year, in April and on Monday and Tuesdays instead, we're talking about figures in the six to seven million range. To the naked eye, that looks rather like a show in considerable decline. But context, as always, is the key when dealing with complex things like ratings and audience share. With 'live' TV viewing down across the board, it is becoming increasingly evident that what may once have been considered to be quite average overnight ratings are, these days, much more likely to put a cautious smile on the face of the TV executives responsible for them. Stephen Fry in his - extraordinary and beautiful - speech on The Future Of Broadcasting to Ofcom in May 2008 noted that, in broadcasting circles 'three million is now considered a good rating for a BBC1 drama.' Just to highlight, again, on its worst day ever, when it was up against the biggest thing that ITV could possibly throw at it, and on a warm Saturday evening in June, Doctor Who got an overnight audience of 5.5 million (with an audience share of twenty five per cent), followed by over a million viewers for the BBC3 repeat the next evening, time-shift figures of just under a million the following week, and iPlayer figures of over half-a-million in the ten days after first transmission. Even the world's greatest naysayer has to agree that puts 'three million' and 'good' into some heavy context.

It's a useful illustration of something that most of us who've taken an interest in the phenomena have come to realise over the last three years. Most 'normal' TV rules simply do not apply to Doctor Who. It has a reasonably fixed weekly audience reach of somewhere between eight and nine million. But, unlike the reasonably fixed weekly audience reach for most other shows, Doctor Who's reasonably fixed weekly audience appear to be well-sussed and techno-savvy enough to realise that they don't, necessarily, have to watch the series there and then but can find it in other places and at other times if needs be. And, given that it's a show about time travel, that's really rather comforting. We now know, roughly, how many people Doctor Who is going to be watched by on an average week. Just not, necessarily, how many it's going to be watched by on an average Saturday night. Because there, genuinely, doesn't seem to be any such thing any more.

When everything is in its favour in terms of the opposition, the weather, the time slot et cetera. - then Doctor Who's overnight ratings figures will be huge. When everything isn't in its favour, then the overnight ratings figures won't be huge, they'll be merely above average. But those viewers don't just go away, they watch the series at another time and through another media (whether that's freeview, time-shifting or iPlayer). That's not something which you can say about many other shows.

Interestingly, in America, the situation is broadly similar – ratings have been in a quite steady decline anyway for a couple of years – possibly due to the now almost universal use of the TiVo system which makes the concept of watching any TV show 'live' something of a quaint relic of bygone days in the US. Since the writers strike concluded earlier this year, this ratings decline has become even more stark with genuine bona-fide hits shows like the CSI franchise, Lost, House, Bones and Law & Order all gaining numbers that, just a year ago, might have been considered relatively poor but are now fairly industry-standard. The issue was raised again, recently, when Heroes creator Tim Kring made comments to the effect that - given an alternative - very few people seem to watch TV 'live' any longer (they prefer recordings, downloads or waiting for DVD box-sets to come out so that they can watch their favourite shows without annoying interruptions from adverts and at times that are convenient to them, not to some suit in the scheduling department). The comments caused quite a bit of controversy because Kring didn't phrase them particularly well and used some ill-advised language. But, I think it's fair to say, they were broadly misunderstood. They sought to highlight the point that in the US - where advertising revenue is, ultimately, the only factor in deciding whether a show is considered a success or a failure - programme-makers are getting increasingly pressurised by highly nervous networks over something which is, because of the advance of technology and the increasing sophistication of audiences viewing habits, almost entirely out of their control. In his own, roundabout, way Kring seemed to be saying something similar to Mark Lawson all those months ago in the Guardian - that TV is at something of a crossroads over this issue and, since it appears viewers are starting to lose patience with the concept of (in the case of US drama shows) watching eighteen minutes of advertising every hour as a pay-off for being able to enjoy the other forty two minutes that they actually want to see, perhaps it's time for TV, generally, to start looking for other means of generating finance.

This all suggests that in the very near future the entire science of ratings and audience share analysis may well become an increasingly pointless irrelevance. Which is a shame, personally, since it's my job! But, you know, you can't be King Cnut (c. 990 - 1035) and hold back the tides of 'progress.' As more Sky+ boxes and DVD recorders are sold, and as more and more people get used to the idea of watching TV shows on their computer via iPlayer and similar download systems, maybe we are beginning to see the days when download figures are the first numbers that a harassed network executive looks for after a new show has first aired.