The most watched programme on British television this year was the special live edition of EastEnders, broadcast in February to mark the soap’s 25th anniversary.
The most watched programme on British television this year was the special live edition of EastEnders, broadcast in February to mark the soap’s 25th anniversary. This was the one — I assume you’re keeping up — in which Bradley Branning plunged to his death and Stacey confessed that she had killed Archie. At the end, some 16.6 million people were watching, which is roughly 28 per cent of the population, still a fraction of the 50 per cent who watched the old Morecambe and Wise show on Christmas Day back in the 1970s.
But television is no longer the glue that binds us. The Americans call them ‘water-cooler moments’, though in Britain the conversations would be in the canteen — over The Forsyte Saga or Hancock’s Half Hour, or, of course, Coronation Street. Television provided endless common interest. But now we’ve all watched something different, a documentary on BBC4, a repeat of QI on Dave, pro-am racquetball on Sky Sports 3. This is becoming a less sociable country: pubs are closing by the score, and meanwhile we are all at home watching one of a hundred channels.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the second most watched programme was England v. Germany in June, during the World Cup. That attracted 15.8 million viewers, nearly two and a half million more than watched Spain win the final. Clearly, the nation lost interest after our defeat. Few other sports events came anywhere near it, unless you count The X Factor, whose final results show topped 14.5 million.
What’s remarkable when you look at the BARB viewing figures for the past year is how staid, how unchanging we are. After 26 years, EastEnders is almost invariably top of BBC1’s chart. After 50 years, Coronation Street leads the ITV1 table, except when The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent is running. Both the major soaps hover between 9 and 11 million viewers per show. Given the amount of space devoted to them by the popular press, it’s worth remembering that this is around 17 per cent of the population. They are a minority taste.
What has changed is our obsession with competition. If you want a hit cookery show, it’s not enough just to show people cooking. (Though Heston Blumenthal is a huge success on Channel 4, often getting more than 3 million viewers, a jackpot in C4 terms, and proof that people who watch cookery programmes rarely make the dishes, since most of Blumenthal’s require a small nuclear reactor, just for the gravy.)
So the biggest cookery programme is Masterchef. And Celebrity Masterchef does even better, since the blend of people you’ve almost heard of and dishes you will never prepare is clearly irresistible. We love quizzes, and we love shows in which people are humiliated, such as I’m A Celebrity, Coach Trip and another massive hit for C4, Come Dine With Me, in which strangers prepare meals for each other, are torn to shreds by their guests and then subjected to a heavily sarcastic voiceover. It is always near the top of the C4 ratings. Catch it if you ever want to see, for example, a woman in a corset so tight that her breasts appear like clubbed baby seals, dishing up scarlet marinaded ostrich steaks with beetroot risotto. They should have a trailer at the end: ‘For details of how not to make these recipes, go to our website…’
In a typical week, 20 out of the 25 most popular BBC2 programmes were competitions of one kind or another — Strictly Come Dancing and The Apprentice spin-offs, Eggheads, and so on. In the same week the Channel 4 top listings included 20 competitions out of 25 shows. This is how much we love seeing people fighting against each other: one week, The Great British Bake-off, in which people were shown making cakes, led the BBC2 ratings with 3 million viewers. Can The Great British Watching Paint Dry be long delayed?
So what, apart from soaps and humiliation, did we watch? Countryfile crept up on the BBC, often getting 8 million. Springwatch and Autumnwatch did almost as well. Antiques Roadshow, which is basically daytime television with class, is always near the top. The better dramas did well, too. Downton Abbey steadily put on viewers, ending at just over 10 million. The BBC’s bold modern-day Sherlock took 9 million. A Touch of Frost and Doctor Who could rely on 9 to 10 million.
The most successful sitcoms were Gavin and Stacey and Outnumbered, followed by Life of Riley. Misses: Jonathan Ross’s last Friday-night chat show went out with a lacklustre 5 million. James Corden’s World Cup Live got 4 million or so, which looks good, but was disastrous considering that 13 million had watched the football before it.