The most watched programme on television this past year was the royal wedding, which is hardly surprising, since we had the day off to watch it. Bagehot said that royalty was the institution that ‘riveted’ the nation, by which he meant bound together rather than fascinated. However, strange as it may seem, most people in the UK weren’t sufficiently fascinated, or bound together, to see the ceremony — they were republicans, too young, having a day out, were on the street in London, or just didn’t care. Some 26 million were in front of their sets, only 3 million more than watched in the US, where the coverage started at 6 a.m. East Coast on a normal weekday. The event left us with some lasting, indeed riveting, national images: Pippa Middleton’s bottom and Princess Beatrice’s fascinator come to mind, but it didn’t break any records.
The biggest audiences on British television remain the 30 million who saw EastEnders on Christmas Day 1986, and the largest ever, the 32.3 million for the 1966 World Cup final — which, as older readers may recall, England won.
But audiences continue to fragment. Radio Times alone lists 76 channels, and that is not quite all. No doubt there is a Watching Paint Dry channel somewhere. People are increasingly willing to seek out programmes on cable and satellite. Many audiences do remain extremely low. Some channels have such tiny ratings that you could afford to advertise your missing cat on them — not that any neighbours would see. Take Treme (Sky Atlantic), a serial about the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina. It had fairly good reviews but audiences were typically around 60,000. Still as many as would see a decent West End theatre run, but in ratings terms piddling. By contrast, Game of Thrones, which Sky spent a fortune on publicising, managed nearly 800,000.
Because of the fragmentation, it is rare for an audience to reach 10 million, though it does still happen occasionally. There are still water-cooler moments, when enough people have seen a show to make it a topic of general conversation. So the most-watched programmes of 2011 included the final of The Apprentice on BBC1, which hit nearly 11 million, and the final of Britain’s Got Talent (ITV), which did reach 11 million. For much of autumn the main ratings battle was between The X Factor, the annual festival of the dysfunctional, the talentless and occasional discovery on ITV, and Strictly Come Dancing, a cavalcade of camp, the quintessence of kitsch, on BBC1. Strictly was just the winner. The last Downton Abbey before Christmas (ITV) managed 10 million, having bumped along with 8 or 9 million for most of the series. This is a lot, but not as many as you might expect, given the incredible amount of publicity it got in all media outlets. Its every detail may have commanded hectares of newsprint, but still only one in seven of the population watched it regularly. Indeed the figures for the last episode were 2 million down on The X Factor before it on ITV.
You may or may not be surprised to learn that the biggest audiences of all, apart from the royal wedding, were for news about the summer riots. On the Tuesday night the BBC news reached an astonishing 13.1 million people, and even the cable news channels attracted record numbers.
The year’s successes included sport, as always, with the Rugby World Cup managing more than 5 million, though all the matches were early in the morning. England v. France hit 8.1 million, and even Wales v. France reached 6.6 million, well over twice the population of Wales. The FA Cup Final, once the greatest sporting event in the British calendar, emptying shops and streets, climbed to just 6.8 million, slightly lower than the Grand National.
The year’s unexpected successes included My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, a huge hit for Channel 4 (6.5 million-plus) even if it was deeply resented by the gypsies it depicted; The Only Way Is Essex about gilded yoof in Brentwood, which was knocking 2 million even though it was on ITV2. Frozen Planet was a hit on BBC1, though later episodes were crushed under I’m a Celebrity on ITV, and amazingly The Great British Bake-Off (BBC2), which reached 6 million even though it was about people mixing batter, putting it in the oven and taking it out again.
The disappointments included Ricky Gervais’s Life’s Too Short (BBC2), which I was the only critic to like, and which saw its figures dwindle from 2 million to 1.3. Rev, which was hugely esteemed, did almost as badly. And Gordon Ramsay’s Gordon’s Great Escape (Channel 4) struggled to get 1 million viewers, even fewer than The Hotel Inspector on Channel 5. Being beaten by anything on C5 is the ultimate insult to a once-mighty star.