Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Don’t Panic! …About Doctor Who

Saturday’s Doctor Who was particularly good, a return to the ‘claustrophobic terror in distant space’ style of story with some great performances, scary Cthulood monsters and the most chillingly villainous voice in the world, all to build up to the Satanic revelations of this week’s episode and tie in with today’s favourite-of-numerologists date. But you know how it is. Some people are never satisfied. I wrote a few weeks ago about the similarity in ‘tribal’ feeling between politics and Doctor Who; well, now Doctor Who has its own panic about ratings, just like the Lib Dems over the local elections or the Tories doing quite well in opinion polls.

In a numerological celebration, today’s Doctor Who post is going to be about the Beastly business of number-crunching. On Saturday, Doctor Who was watched live by 5.9 million viewers, the second-highest number for any programme that day, and by a 40% share of those watching TV at the time, also the second-highest number for any programme that day (though second, in each case, to a different ‘leader’). Both Media Guardian and many posters on the Forums at Doctor Who site Outpost Gallifrey have noted that fewer people have watched Doctor Who for the past couple of weeks than in the previous few, and gone into overload about what a terrible ‘disaster’ it is that it’s still only the UK’s third or fourth most popular show every week and beats everything ITV can throw at it. As with the recent Lib Dem ‘disaster’, historically it’s still doing brilliantly and people are panicking over nothing. As it happens, both Doctor Who and Lib Dems have primarily been reported as collapsing in the Murdoch papers, and, gosh, by coincidence these don’t actually like socially liberal, anti-monopolist pro-Europeans or their business empire’s primary competitor the BBC, so it could be they have some form of axe to grind. Who’d have thought?

Now, just as in politics, where you might play off ‘share of the vote’, ‘seats won’ and ‘councils controlled’ to find your best angle, there are several different ways to find how popular a TV show is (and out of all the correct answers coming up, not one is going to be ‘because the News of the World says it is / isn’t’. How about that?).

In TV, there are four main measures of popularity, collated by an outfit called BARB. The most obvious is the raw audience figure, or ‘how many actual people are watching?’ That tells you a lot, though there are two complications: the first is that, if people are out or watching something else, they might record the show to watch later, but still watch it. The corrective to that is that you hear about ‘overnight’ ratings – a sample of who watched at the time – and the ‘adjusted’ ratings, released about a fortnight later, which take a larger, more accurate sample of viewers, and include their watching of recorded programmes if it’s within a week of transmission (though they don’t include repeats, which in the case of Doctor Who regularly top the BBC3 charts). Doctor Who tends to pick up a higher number of ‘adjusted’ figures than most other programmes, usually heading towards 700,000 more people, meaning the final ratings the series is getting have been anything from 6.5 to 9.5 million. I blogged about Rise of the Cybermen’s success, for example, when it hit a final figure of 9.2 million viewers last month after boosts from a Radio Times cover, lots of trailers and the return of an old monster. The other complication is timing; if your programme goes out on BBC1 at eight in the evening, you’d expect it to get better figures than if it goes out at three in the morning, simply because there are an awful lot more people watching. So if two million people tune in at the former time, it’s a flop, but at the later time it’s regarded as a startling success in such a poor slot.

The corrective to that timing issue is the second main way in which popularity is measured. It’s based on the ‘audience share’, and it measures popularity adjusted for the number of people watching. More people tend to watch television in the evenings than in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, and – to a lesser extent – in Winter than Summer, as dark, cold evenings are more likely to see people stay in front of the telly than when it’s bright and sunny (obviously, in Britain this often means high Summer ratings, too). Many fans want the series shown in the Autumn and Winter instead of Spring and Summer, so they can boast about bigger raw audience numbers or, more charitably, so more people will have the pleasure of seeing the show. My view is that the BBC are doing stunningly well in a time of the week and of the year that was previously dead for them, so they’re unlikely to mess with it. However, my preference is also for Winter, for a different reason – it’s just scarier when it’s dark outside. Even that has its upside; perhaps they can get away with more terrifying episodes on bright, cheery nights than they might by petrifying children in the dark, and I’m all for that.

So, last Saturday’s The Impossible Planet dipped slightly below six million on its overnight figure for the first time since the series returned last year, but because it still had the largest number of those watching – well over twice that of ITV1 – its audience share climbed from the previous week’s 32% to 39.8%, which is spectacular. In these multi-channel days, the BBC usually consider anything above 30% in prime time a very big hit. The slightly lower raw audience figures are less to do with the popularity of Doctor Who than that people took advantage of the first sunny Saturday for more than a month to have a day out; just 12.4 million people were watching TV at 7pm last Saturday. That’s two million fewer than any other Doctor Who night since it was relaunched last Spring, and four million fewer than the average for Doctor Who nights, which does suggest a very strong alternative reading for the slight loss of audience for the show to ‘boo hoo, everyone’s gone off it overnight’. Doctor Who’s audience is also split dead-equally between men and women, and fairly stably across age ranges except amongst children, where it scores above 50% (so, Lib Dems, if you have to visit a school and worry you’ll sound completely out of touch with the kids, just talk Doctor Who).

Related to ‘share’ is the weekly chart. This takes the ratings for each programme and compares them to all the others anyone was watching to see which did best (there’s another weekly chart by audience share, but that’s much more prone to distortion by including low-but-much-higher-than-the-rest programmes when everyone else is in bed). Each of the different measurements has something to recommend it that the others can’t match, but I reckon this one’s the most accurate reflection of real popularity, month on month and year on year. Like audience share it allows for how many people are watching TV altogether by comparing like with like, and it measures programmes against each other based on actual numbers watching a programme, from the raw audience figures. It also enables you to make a direct comparison between how Doctor Who is performing against the best of the competition in 1963 and 2006, when other measures would be distorted by pitching a choice of just two channels on a cold winter evening against a choice of five terrestrial channels, dozens of free digital channels, hundreds of satellite channels, videos and DVDs, on a warm sunny night. To give the most exaggerated example, the best raw audience figures the old series ever had were in Autumn 1979, when, er, ITV was on strike (and before home video or even a fourth channel), yet the BBC was doing so well all round when there was literally no competition that most of those episodes still only made the top 40, and only one hit the top 20. In terms of chart position, about ten other seasons of the show have done better (a ‘season’ is usually made up of a run of programmes across three to six months in a year, with a break of six to nine months before the next year’s season of the show).

I’m not going to present a detailed overview of Doctor Who’s chart ratings year-by-year; though I’ve read every entry, there’s simply too much of it. In general, though, over the years the series has almost always been inside the top 100 programmes watched in each week (with a handful of eye-watering exceptions), but where inside the top 100 has varied wildly – sometimes within the top 90, 60, 30… It’s generally true that the chart position stays roughly similar throughout each year’s season of the show, often dipping or rising a bit, but still in the same sort of area: most of the episodes being within a range of twenty to thirty places, say, rather than falling from the top 20 to past the top 100, with only one big exception. That was when in the 1963-4 season the programme rose from outside the top 100 to just hit the top 20, plainly as it found its audience for its very first year. I suspect that means viewers were reacting less to how impressive individual Doctor Who stories were or not at the time, and more to what competing programme was on ITV or simply how ‘fashionable’ the programme was or not that year. I reckon the average is about the 50 mark, with the chart entries in most years clustered from the 30s to about 60.

It would be churlish to talk about the years in which Doctor Who wasn’t doing terribly well in the charts, but there have been three definite peaks. The first was for the second season, from 1964-5, featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor at the height of what was called ‘Dalekmania’. Doctor Who tended to range from the edges of the top 40 right up to the top 10 in the most-watched TV of the week, with a large majority at least within the top 30. The second peak was in 1975-7, the programme’s twelfth to fourteenth seasons and the first three of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor (after ratings built up during the last couple of years of Jon Pertwee), where the episodes all generally hit the top 30 or 20, peaking with regular appearances just outside the top 10 for Season Fourteen. And the third? It began with Christopher Eccleston’s debut as the Doctor last Spring, and we’re still in it.

During the whole period of the show’s original run from 1963 to 1989, only eleven episodes hit the weekly top ten. Most of these were for Dalek stories, though the highest placing to date was at number 5 for the second episode of Tom Baker’s rather brilliant outer space horror story The Ark in Space. A whole eight of these episodes were from William Hartnell’s second season back in 1964-5, with a solitary Jon Pertwee episode bringing up the rear. I’m also being generous, as one wasn’t among the originally transmitted 695 episodes, but a repeated film-style compilation of the complete story Pyramids of Mars – a fabulously scary adventure in which the Doctor fights to prevent the rising of an imprisoned god of evil known by such names as Set, Satan and Susan and possessing the most chillingly villainous voice in the world; no relation – and the figures I have are ambiguous on whether it charted at number 7 for all the week’s programmes or merely for all the BBC’s programmes, which would probably put it outside the main top 10. Let’s call it 11 episodes out of 696, though, and that’s a whole 1.58% in the weekly top 10 (though, within that, Season Two hit a remarkable peak of 20% reaching the top 10).

Then the 1996 TV Movie Time Waits For No Man hit number 9 for its week; but that was just a one-off (and, again, that may have been for just the BBC).

The first episode of the 2005 season, Rose, was the 7th most-watched programme of the week; at the time, the joint second-best placing the series had ever had. All but one of the other episodes that season managed at least the lower reaches of the top 20, with the odd one out charting at 21. The Christmas special that was David Tennant’s first story came in at number 9 – and of the six 2006 episodes for which final figures exist so far, Tooth and Claw made number 10, New Earth number 9, and Rise of the Cybermen number 6, now the second-best placing the series has ever had, with every single one of the others in the top 20. That means there have been five more episodes in the top 10 since the series’ return last year, despite the virtual lock on most places in the top 10 by multiple appearances from Eastenders and Coronation Street, the only British TV programmes that usually (but not always) out-rate Doctor Who. 25% of episodes in the weekly top ten is quite strikingly better than 1.58%. Or if you want to take just David Tennant’s episodes… Well, I make that just over 57% so far getting a top 10 place.

The programme is clearly doomed ;-)

I collated my figures through the highly advanced method of flicking through every single rating for 716 episodes and jotting down the rough patterns they fall into for each season, rather than typing up every single one and subjecting them to three types of statistical analysis. This means they’re a little generalised, but still pretty accurate; and the figures for the top ten are entirely accurate, to an episode. Measured against how the rest of TV programming is performing, based on the weekly TV charts, it is a fact that the first set of stories featuring David Tennant as the Doctor is so far doing better than Doctor Who has done in any year since it first started in 1963.

I have never posted on the Outpost Gallifrey Forums and rarely read them except to find out audience figures, though I’ve supplied the site with the odd review. I find the hysterically argumentative tone too wearing; a bit like politicalstirring.com. However, should anyone wish to borrow any of my arguments to sling around in there, feel free to crib as much as you like, though obviously I’d prefer a credit and, ideally, not to be distorted out of all proportion. The truth is that Doctor Who is doing brilliantly, and that it was doing even more brilliantly a few weeks ago is a cause for joy at the upwards spike rather than despondency at a perceived tumble.

Oh, I said there were four main measures of popularity, didn’t I, and only explained three? You caught me. There’s also a survey of how much people actually liked what they were watching, called the ‘Appreciation Index’, which is out of 100 and based on scores rather than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (so, if something gets 75%, it doesn’t necessarily mean a quarter of people didn’t like it, but that on average people gave it seven and a half marks out of ten). Drama tends to get about 75%, which was about the highest ‘old’ Doctor Who ever got; you won’t be shocked to hear that all but two of last year’s episodes got into the 80s, which is outstandingly high for any TV programme. And every one of this year’s stories so far has scored from 83-86%, putting all of them into the highest-pleasing as well as highest-rating shows for the week. Yes, that’s the best Doctor Who has ever done, too.

So, don’t panic. No, don’t panic.

Just sit back on Saturday and be terrified.

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