In the last full week of May, the BBC did not have a single programme in the top 15 ratings in the United Kingdom, which all went to the ITV commercial network. The most popular programmes continue to be dominated by long-running serial dramas but these have far smaller audiences than over previous decades. Other than live entertainment, news and sport, scheduled channels are increasingly vulnerable to viewing on demand.
The top rated programme in the week commencing 20 May 2019 was Britain’s Got Talent, with 8.04 million viewers. The rest of the top 15 was dominated by the long-running drama serials Coronation Street and Emmerdale.
The most viewed programme on the BBC was the period drama series Gentleman Jack, with 5.88 million viewers, ahead of the drama serial EastEnders with 5.51 million.
That was down on the previous week, when Gentleman Jack opened with 6.70 million, behind The Eurovision Song Contest with 7.30 million, again beaten by Britain’s Got Talent with 8.53 million.
The week before that, the BBC only had the 15th most popular programme, with EastEnders viewed by 5.70 million.
The BBC still leads in terms of audience share, with just over 30% of all television viewing in April, compared to 23% for ITV channels.
BBC 1 is also still the leading channel, with a 20.4% share of viewing, well ahead of ITV with 10. 8%.
Apart from some standout dramas, like Line of Duty, the BBC has recently struggled to provide popular programmes with broad appeal.
It used to be that EastEnders could deliver a mass audience, but with a dwindling audience of around 5.5 million is far from its peak, when 15 million or more was the norm.
Even Coronation Street on ITV has dropped below 7 million viewers.
Such serial dramas remain a staple of television viewing in the United Kingdom and continue to attract a loyal audience out of habit. Shown most weekday evenings, their quotidian continuity fits the rhythm of people’s lives.
While they are suited to catching up within a few days of transmission, they tend not to demand back-to-back viewing. It is generally possible to follow the development of their storylines even if an episode is missed.
They also tend to be watched on a television set, with over 98% of the audience watching that way, rather than on a computer, tablet or phone.
There are occasional exceptions. An episode of EastEnders in October last year was watched by 7% of its viewers on screens other than a television, but even then the consolidated 28 day audience was only just over 5 million.
The biggest non-television audience monitored by BARB in 2018 was for the last episode of the BBC drama Bodyguard, which attracted 865,500 viewers on computers, tablets or phones, generating a 7% uplift on its total audience of over 17 million.
But such figures are the exception, rather than the rule.
Dramas like Bodyguard, which was bizarrely made by an ITV company for the BBC and is shown on Netflix outside the United Kingdom, are also the type of programme that is most suited to subscription video services.
Broadcast television can still occasionally bring such programmes to a large audience. Yet Netflix is now in nearly 11.5 million homes in the United Kingdom, which represents around 26 million individuals.
The BBC still delivers the sort of programmes that are not provided by subscription video services.
The Six O’clock News provided four out of the top 15 programmes for the BBC in the last week of May, with an average audience of 3.82 million. Such bulletins do not lend themselves to on-demand or catch-up viewing. Some of that can be covered by news web sites, but perhaps news organisations need to think more about how they can address on-demand viewing.
So where does that leave scheduled channels? In 2018, Entertainment programming accounted for the largest share of total viewing at 19.2%, followed by drama with 16.2% and documentaries at 14.2%, with films adding a further 8.3%. News and weather represented 10.2%, with current affairs adding 4.2%. Sport made up just 8.6% of viewing. Together these broad genres represented over 80% of all television viewing.
Variety entertainment and talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent continue to attract large family audiences. News and current affairs represent around 15% of viewing. Although major sporting events attract some of the largest audiences, most sport on television in the United Kingdom attracts relatively modest numbers of viewers and sport generally represents less than one in ten hours of viewing.
So broadcast television remains the natural home of live entertainment, news and sport, but these collectively account for less than 40% of total television viewing. The rest is generally recording programming that is amenable to being watched on demand and is therefore very vulnerable to subscription video services.