Doctor Who: no longer ‘event’ television?

Doctor Who series 9's first rating number didn't seem too high at first glance. But there's a (time) shift going on...

QUICK UPDATE: For reference, the viewing figures for The Magician’s Apprentice, one week on, have come in at 7.33m. Furthermore, there have been 1.53m requests to view the programme on iPlayer. That’ll grow further over the coming weeks, and a firmer, final figure is due next month. 

When David Tennant’s tenure in the TARDIS officially ended with The End Of Time Part 2, it was, it’s fair to say, a sizeable moment. On January 1st 2011, 10.4 million viewers were reported to have tuned in to see the episode as it screened, just over a third of all viewers watching TV at the time. The consolidated figures that arrived in February made even better reading: add in the BBC HD numbers, and the 1.3m iPlayer watchers, and The End Of Time Part 2 became only the third time that Doctor Who had been the most watched programme of the week on UK television, with 12.27 million viewers in total (according to BARB). There were DVD sales on top of that, too, as well as an international audience.

The End Of Time Part 2 was obviously the culmination of a storyline that had been building up for a good year, and the departure of Tennant – arguably the most popular Doctor of the modern era in terms of pure box office – was always going to be a big moment. But still: in an era when drama of any ilk struggles to top 10m viewers, it was the near-ratings peak of modern day Doctor Who.

Inevitably, the naysayers have been out in force given the early figures for Doctor Who series 9’s debut episode, The Magician’s Apprentice, over the weekend. The first ratings for the show suggested that 4.58 million people had tuned in to watch the programme as it broadcast on BBC One. That’s lower than the figure for any episode in series 8, and a good way down from Peter Capaldi’s debut, Deep Breath (which started with an overnight figure of 6.8m).

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Now: 4.58 million is a long, long way from the final number. By the time iPlayer requests are factored in, along with those who ‘taped’ it using services such as Sky+, it’s likely that the final number will be at least 3 million viewers higher, at the very least. There’s a BBC Three repeat to add too. Then there’s the small matter of the sizeable international audience for Doctor Who, which will ensure that tens of millions of people at least will have watched The Magician’s Apprentice by this time next week.

So this isn’t an article suggesting that Doctor Who‘s ratings are in decline. They’re shifting, certainly, and I doubt too many people were chuffed with the comparably low number who tuned in on Saturday. Yet reports of Doctor Who‘s demise tend to be exaggerated, and this is no exception.

But something clearly has changed: and that’s that Doctor Who is arguably no longer what could be described as ‘event’ television. Over the course of the series, with two-parters and cliffhangers to come, that may change. Yet right now, even with spoilers spilling onto social networking services, the compulsion to sit and watch the show the minute it’s transmitted is clearly in decline.

I don’t think the BBC has done Doctor Who too many favours in that regard. Over the past few years, the show has been something of a scheduling football, rarely in a consistent time slot on a Saturday. There’s no sense that at 7pm on a Saturday night, for instance, that Doctor Who will be on. Saturday’s episode, for instance, screened at 7.40pm. I’d put hard cash down now that it won’t stay in that slot for the next 11 weeks.

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That’s in large part down to servicing the needs of Strictly Come Dancing, which – since Doctor Who returned in 2005 – has become BBC One’s big Saturday night ratings winner. When Strictly needs to be longer, everything else – pardon the pun – has to dance around it. Doctor Who included. I’d argue that if Doctor Who had the same time slot every week, it’d at least have a sporting chance of increasing its ‘live’ audience, if indeed the desire is to do that.

That said, the way television drama in particular is being devoured has changed sizeably over the past decade. Whilst there are occasional exceptions – the simulcast of episodes of Game Of Thrones, or the Lost finale – the majority of TV drama is being lapped up in arrears. That is, a large part of the audience isn’t watching live. In some cases, people are awaiting the boxset, so they can ‘binge watch’ the whole lot. Again, Doctor Who included.

But still: I do think something’s being lost. There are many great things about Doctor Who, and one of them is its one of the few programmes that attracts a genuine family audience. That everyone can sit and watch it in one room. Technology has made this more challenging than ever – after all, there’s barely a room in any house that can’t be reached with a screen now – but occasionally, a show manages it.

When that happens, it does tend to involve reality TV in some form, not least accompanied by some form of live Tweet-a-long (hello, The Great British Bake Off!). But occasionally, albeit usually around a public holiday, a drama breaks through. Sherlock series 3’s debut on 1st January 2014, for example, totalled 12.72 viewers in all.

I’d argue, though, that Doctor Who was the last show to make such an ‘event’ drama. The episode in question? The Day Of The Doctor, the 50th anniversary special that was lapped up on BBC One, across the world, and in cinemas. Not content with breaking into the top ten at the UK cinema box office, Day Of The Doctor garnered an even bigger audience than The End Of Time Part 2, as 12.8m. It felt like a proper event, and that was only two years ago.

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Even appreciating that a 50th birthday is a one-off occasion, it does mean that twice in the last six years, Doctor Who has proven its ability to be show that doesn’t just adapt to current viewing trends, but also has the power to resist them.

All of this doesn’t mean that a 4.58m rating leaves Doctor Who in trouble. The critical and fan reaction to The Magician’s Apprentice has been warm, and next week’s episode is even better.

But I for one hope that, as storylines develop this series, there are those episodes that you simply have to watch there and then, and want to get to as quickly as possible.

In an era when Netflix will release an entire season of a show in one go, and when boxsets – both real, and Sky pretend ones – appear to be ruling the proverbial roost, I like that a show can break against that trend, leave a week between episodes, and have viewers looking forward to what’s coming next. There’s no British drama better placed than Doctor Who for that, and if it can continue to warrant its occasional ‘event viewing’ tag, that’d be no small achievement.

That said, as long as it’s watched at some point, and as long as it keeps getting made, I’m not going to grumble…

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