Doctor Who viewing figures have always been the subject of intense scrutiny. But how much do they really matter in today’s world?
When Doctor Who first started in 1963, viewing figures were quite important. Indeed, in the early 60s there were only two TV channels in the UK – the BBC and ITV – so it was genuinely a head-to-head competition for people’s eyeballs. As such, the Doctor Who viewing figures of 1963 were a fairly accurate indication of what was grabbing an audience’s attention.
For example, the show gained fairly modest attention with its debut story ‘An Unearthly Child.’ The viewing figures were solid enough, hovering around the 6 million mark – and this wasn’t bad, considering that its first episode had aired the day after the assassination of President Kennedy.
But it wasn’t until the next story ‘The Daleks‘ that the Doctor Who viewing figures really grew. Whilst the opening episode garnered a respectable 6.9, its final episode reached 10.4 – a clear measure of show’s growing popularity, and the popularity of its new baddies. And when the metal mutants returned a year later in ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth,’ the viewing figures hit a staggering 12.4 million.
And by this point, the Doctor Who viewing figures were even more impressive considering that BBC One now had two other channels to compete with (although, admittedly, one of these was BBC Two, which had launched in the April of that year.)
But at the same time, the Doctor Who viewing figures were not the only measure of the show’s success. There was (and still is) the Audience Appreciation Index – a single figure between 0 and 100 which is calculated by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (or BARB) based on survey data. Generally speaking, any number over 90 is outstanding, while anything below 60 is considered poor.
So it’s interesting to see that, while the Doctor Who viewing figures for stories such as ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ were strong, the Audience Appreciation Index (or AI) was fairly average, hovering in the low 60s. In short, large numbers of people tuned in to watch something ‘unremarkable’!
In reality, it is actually quite rare for a programme to score above 90. Even Doctor Who has struggled to achieve this over the years, but there are a few exceptions – most notably ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’ from Series Four, both of which achieved an AI score of 91. Even the viewing figures were high for these adventures, averaging at 9.7 million. Surely, this is the dream of any programme maker – to produce a show which is seen (and loved) by lots of people.
These Doctor Who viewing figures weren’t the highest of all time, though. That accolade goes to the concluding part of ‘City of Death,’ which achieved an eye-watering 16.1 million viewers. And whilst this adventure is generally considered to be one of Doctor Who‘s all-time classics, it is worth remembering that ITV was on strike when it was broadcast, so the figure is not the most accurate measure of the show’s popularity!
But how much does all this really matter? Do people spend too much time worrying about the Doctor Who viewing figures? Are they really a measure of ‘how well the show is doing’?
The answer is yes and no. The world of television consumption has changed considerably – even in the 13 years since ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End.’ Today, on-demand television is many people’s preferred method of consumption. They will record a programme digitally to watch later, or else stream it at a time of their choosing.
And these days, there are a plethora of platforms to choose from – Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+, to name a few. It is perfectly possible to live in a world without live TV and be fully entertained. In the UK, you can even watch Doctor Who without a TV license if you don’t mind waiting. (Personally, I watched this year’s ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ on iTunes.)
As such, people like me didn’t count in that episode’s final figure of 6.3 million (although it did include people who recorded it to watch later, and who watched it on BBC iPlayer within seven days.) And in fact, ‘Revolution of the Dalek’s overnight viewing figures were a much lower 4.7 million; these are the kind of Doctor Who viewing figures that remind people of the show’s cancellation in 1989. For many, this is nightmare territory!
And whilst 4.7 million is a far-cry from the 13.3 who tuned in for 2007’s ‘Voyage of the Damned,’ this is not entirely a reflection on Doctor Who. Indeed, ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ was actually the third most-watched programme of the day on the 1st January 2021, indicating that live TV viewing was low across the board.
And it has been for a while. This goes some way to explaining why episodes like the Series 11 finale ‘The Timeless Children‘ only received 3.8 million in its overnights.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that the episode was only the 30th most-watched of the week. Similarly, it’s worth noting that other BBC dramas such as Line of Duty can still pull in high viewing figures, and its season finale in March 2021 was seen by a staggering 16.4 million people. These are ‘City of Death’ levels of popularity!
So the Doctor Who viewing figures do matter, then? Yes, of course they do. Broadcasters wouldn’t measure them if they didn’t. If millions of people take time out of their busy schedules to sit down and watch a programme as it is broadcast, that says a lot about its likeability.
But it’s not the only factor, and the Doctor Who viewing figures have to be viewed in the context of real world events (such as a pandemic, or the World Cup.) Plus, of course, there are those who stream the show on iPlayer. And then there is the all-important AI figure.
How do you feel about the Doctor Who viewing figures? Do they interest you / bore you / frighten you (delete as applicable!) Let me know in the comments below.
Thirteenth Doctor scarf – order now from the Lovarzi shop!