Millions of viewers watched the opening episodes of drama series on the BBC iPlayer over the festive period. The BBC recorded 22 million streams on Sunday 2 January, boosted by the box set drama The Tourist. That was slightly up on the 21 million streams on 1 January the previous year. There were 141 million streams over the week to 3 January, up 6% on the previous year. However, traditional television still makes up most BBC viewing.

The opening episode of A Very British Scandal, which had a total average audience of 6.96 million as reported by BARB, was the most popular programme on the BBC iPlayer over the festive fortnight, with 2.3 million requests.

The first episode of the international co-production The Tourist received 1.6 million requests through the BBC iPlayer and had a total of 8.69 million viewers as reported by BARB, making it the second most watched programme of the first week of the new year. The BBC reported that it had an average audience of 8.9 million, combining and deduplicating BARB data and its own web stats. BARB reported that the second episode, transmitted the following day, had an audience of 7.37 million, a drop of 1.32 million. That includes just 18,000 that watched it online pre-transmission.

BBC iPlayer

The fourth and final episode of The Girl Before received 1.6 million requests, although the series did not make the top 20 programmes on the BBC over the festive period.

The Christmas Special of Call the Midwife also had 1.6 million requests, ahead of the Christmas Day episode of EastEnders with 1.5 million, around the same number as the previous year, and the opening episode of Around the World in 80 Days with 1.4 million.

Top 10 programmes by episode on BBC iPlayer over Christmas 2021
  Programme Episode Requests
1 A Very British Scandal Series 1, Episode 1 2.3
2 The Tourist Series 1, Episode 1 1.6
3 The Girl Before Series 1, Episode 4 1.6
4 Call the Midwife Christmas Special 2021 1.6
5 EastEnders 25 December 1.5
6 Around the World in 80 Days Series 1, Episode 1 1.4
7 Top Gear Driving Home for Christmas 1.1
8 The Big New Years… New Years Eve 1.1
9 Death in Paradise Christmas Special 2021 1
10 Match of the Day 26 December 1
Requests to BBC iPlayer from 21 December 2021 to 3 January 2022.

The numbers viewing dramas online are impressive, but they do not compensate for the dramatic decline in festive television viewing over the past decade.

Only BBC programme over the festive fortnight to be viewed by more than 10 million was the coverage of the fireworks to welcome in the new year. Happy New Year Live was watched by 10.11 million people from midnight, mostly live, which was slightly more than the same programme the previous year, viewed by 10.05 million.

The annual address from The Queen was watched by 8.23 million, mostly live, compared to 7.29 million the previous year.

Charlotte Moore, the Chief Content Officer of the BBC, said: “Millions of people chose to watch our unrivalled range of box sets and Christmas specials live on our channels, or binge on-demand across the festive season  paving the way for the BBC’s centenary, a landmark year that will look forward and celebrate British creativity across the whole of the UK.”

The viewing figures for the BBC iPlayer demonstrate that drama performs well on-demand, allowing users to watch episodes one after another, or catch up on episodes they may have otherwise missed.

The BBC is emulating services like Netflix in making multiple episodes of programmes available online at the same time, encouraging viewers to watch them sequentially, rather than waiting for the next episode to be transmitted. In so doing, they are moving with the market but risk further eroding the power of television to assemble an audience at any particular time.

Meanwhile, the BBC News at Six has been attracting large audiences through the pandemic and political controversies, often reaching an audience of over 5 million, which is a measure of success these days.