Doctor Who – Do The Ratings Really Matter?

Social media is a curious place. It’s given all manner of fandoms a chance to air their views about their favourite franchises. Even when those views may be in the minority, social media has amplified those and given the impression that because it’s been said on Twitter or Facebook then widespread opinions must be fact. That’s been the case with Doctor Who in recent years and it’s steadily declining TV ratings and what’s been at the heart of it…

Any long running TV show has to adapt to survive. And none have done so more than Doctor Who. Change is at the very heart (or hearts) of the series. Changing the lead actor after three seasons and having to create an entire backstory quickly to explain it is the only reason we’re still able to enjoy the show 60 years later. As for the other changes, I’ll talk about that another time.

But as well as making changes to the programme, format and other essential elements to ensure that it appeals to modern audiences the BBC has had to understand that the very nature of television itself has changed dramatically, even since the show returned in 2005.

Changing Times

I talked at the beginning about the vocal minority when it comes to being critical of Doctor Who online. Truthfully, the same happens to every single franchise and unfortunately those who wish to be negative always seem to shout louder than those who are being positive. But in the case of Doctor Who, it seems that the online community take this criticism further. Misogyny, sexism and racism have crept into discussions about the show from some corners of the fan community and comments aimed at the cast, writers and production crew have been at times somewhat horrific in their nature.

One of the biggest changes the show has seen in recent years is that of its viewing figures as I said at the start. And this vocal group of fans has been determined to lay blame solely at those involved with the series. But television on a global scale has been evolving for some time, just like the series, and it’s not as clear cut as these fans would like to believe…

Do Ratings Matter?

A controversial question, and it depends on your perspective. For commercial broadcasters, ratings are vital as more popular programmes can demand higher rates for advertising revenue. But at the same time, a show’s perceived popularity can give all broadcasters an indicator of how much should be invested in its production and whether it is financially viable.

For programmes that are able to generate income and become self-sufficient through global broadcast deals, home media, merchandise sales etc, this is less of an issue. But even then, the ratings can still be used as a “bargaining chip” to argue the potential value a series may have. A series that is regularly drawing top ten audiences for example, is perceived as being “worth” more than one barely scraping the top twenty in terms of viewing figures.

In the case of Doctor Who, the BBC have made it clear that they do see the ratings figures as important (for all of their programmes) even though they do not operate as a commercial channel.

External Influences – A Timeline

When it comes to the actual television ratings, there are several events that have happened over the last 40+ years that have had an impact on television viewing generally in the UK. Each will have played a part in affecting Doctor Who as well as other niche shows.

  • 1982 – Launch of Channel 4. While there wasn’t necessarily a direct competitor to Doctor Who being broadcast it did split the TV audiences and spread them more thinly.
  • 1990 – British Satellite Broadcasting (which eventually became Sky) was launched with their infamous square dishes. While this didn’t affect the classic series it was launched with the promise of airing reruns continually as a major selling point. But by the time the show came back millions of households had access to a vast range of extra channels.
  • 1997 – Launch of Channel 5 giving every UK household access to five mainstream channels.
  • 2012 – Digital switchover. The old analogue television signals were cut off meaning that all households needed to have Freeview support as standard, suitable boxes or satellite/cable. Yet again this increased the choice people had to the channels available to them.
  • 2016 – TV licensing laws changed making it illegal to use iPlayer without a TV license.

Media Consumption

While I hate the term personally, the way we watch television has changed but moreso for those who enjoy sci-fi, fantasy or anything that has more of a cult following. While more “mainstream” television has retained some stability for regular TV audiences, others viewing habits have changed dramatically.

Streaming services are the norm and whether someone is watching a programme via catch-up the same evening it’s broadcast or the day after, binge watching the entire series, or waiting for the DVD release we simply don’t watch shows the way we used to. We’re no longer at the mercy of the broadcaster to watch programmes when they want us to and that’s reflected in the changing ratings.

Let me use my own situation as an example… We moved to Wales ten years ago. Until that point we watched regular television via Freeview. But in 2013 everything changed. Our house didn’t have a TV aerial installed but when we looked into we were told that our remote location only had access to a booster transmitter so we would lose a lot of the channels we were used to. No cable TV operators covered our area and it wasn’t possible to get Sky TV. So for the last decade we’ve been reliant on catch-up services, Netflix etc. As such we were exempt from needing a TV license and to start off we watched Doctor Who on iPlayer until the BBC changed the rules on its usage in 2016 so that needed a license as well. So after the Peter Capaldi era I’ve purchased digital episodes to stream on Amazon Video.

But in terms of the TV audience, we’re not alone. Out of the 28m households in the UK, more and more are cancelling their TV licenses and opting for catch-up services or buying digital copies of shows instead. Certainly paying for Doctor Who has been far cheaper than a license, even when I buy them again on DVD.

What’s Going Wrong With The Current Audiences?

Now, looking at Doctor Who specifically, the recorded viewing figures have been dropping steadily since 2012. Some die-hard fans have tried to lay the blame entirely on the show itself. The harsher critics have blamed the script writers, showrunner Chris Chibnall, the casting of Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker… the list of reasons is endless. Then there are those who have complained that the series has become “too woke” which is why it has been losing viewers (but that’s an argument for another article).

But the reality is that the same has been happening for viewing figures across the board for most shows. Gone are the days when we saw television shows in the UK drawing audiences of 20 million or more. The more channels we’ve had access to, the smaller audiences have become, and it’s not just isolated to the UK. Primetime shows in the US used to be able to command huge audiences, capturing a large percentage of the population, yet now major shows are classing successful shows as ones that only reach millions of viewers and not tens of millions.

Bucking The Trend

But if television viewing habits are changing, why isn’t it affecting every show? Soap operas still seem to be thriving, and celebrity “reality shows” (I truly loathe that term), seem to be eternally popular. Equally, long running drama shows manage to maintain their audience share, where genre shows struggle. But why is that?

There are two factors at play here. First is audience perception of a show and how much they feel that they “need” to watch a programme as close to its original broadcast as possible. Soap operas demand almost daily viewing from their followers, even more so with the media obsessed about revealing upcoming storylines. But it’s the same with reality shows. There’s usually a very small window where you are able to watch a show live or on a catch up service without having details of it spoiled. They’re not shows that are often binge watched weeks or months later.

How Accurate Are The Ratings Figures?

TV ratings figures in the UK are calculated by Barb Audiences Ltd (formerly known as Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board). Using a variety of methods, they gather data from just over 5,000 households covering 12,000 people in the UK carefully selected to be representative of the viewing audience. Individual viewing patterns are logged each time one of these participants starts or stops watching a programme on any channel (including selected streaming services that have now registered).

The problem here is the sample size. With the UK popuation currently standing at 67.5 million, data is based on less than 0.0002% of the population leaving an incredibly high margin for error. Out of those 12,000 people, how many are sci-fi fans for example? Understandably the larger the sample size the more expensive it becomes to produce the data, but in turn the more accurate it is. But as it stands, I would call into question its reliability.

The Generation Factor

The age demographic also has a part to play. Shows that appeal to an older audience retain more live viewers than those watching at a later date. They are less likely to use streaming services or buy DVD box sets to watch shows. Or less likely to watch shows released for home video. If it’s not live, it doesn’t get watched.

Younger audiences take a more relaxed, casual approach to what, how and when they watch anything. There’s less urgency to watch shows the minute they are broadcast as viewers know that they can be seen any time, any place on absolutely any device. It’s a far more flexible approach, allowing us more freedom of choice instead of having our viewing habits controlled by broadcasters.

More Viewing Options Than Ever

Also, when it comes to watching most shows, we as viewers have far more choices at our disposal than ever before. In terms of Doctor Who, we can opt for the live broadcast or on iPlayer (for those with a TV license). And these are the only viewers that count towards the actual figures reported. But many of those who are regarded to have “abandoned” the series have just swapped over to watching by other means.

Some fans choose to buy or rent episodes digitally a few days after broadcast through services such as Amazon Video or Apple TV. Others are happy to wait until the seasons are released on DVD and Blu Ray. For those that do use iPlayer, viewers who watch streams more than seven days after the original broadcast are also not taken into consideration. And then there are those who watch the show by… less scrupulous methods.

Reality Check

The truth is that many shows – and not just Doctor Who – are still as successful and popular as ever. But we sadly live in a time where many are still eager to use statistics either as a means of bragging, or to be dismissive of a product’s popularity. The days of the 10 million viewers for Doctor Who are long gone for mainstream television. But if all the combined figures were recorded together – especially going forward with the Disney+ deal for Season 14 and beyond – I think people would be truly shocked to see those old records shattered.

About Simon Plumbe 214 Articles
Husband, father and lifelong geek. Originally from the West Midlands, now spending my days in South Wales with my family and a house full of animals. Passionate about video games, especially retro gaming, the Commodore 64 and PlayStation Vita. Love pro wrestling, sci-fi and I'm an animal lover and vegetarian. Enjoyed this and my other articles? Why not buy me a coffee:

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