You may have heard that Doctor Who is done for. It's toast. BGT is king of TV now. The ratings are falling, my dear, and not even the Sonic Screwdriver is going to get him out of this one (cue the theme tune)! But... not really. Over the past few years British Television viewing has undergone some pretty radical changes - similar to US TV during the rise of Netflix and other on-demand services, but on a smaller scale - and Doctor Who has been at the forefront of that change. If anything, Doctor Who remains, 8 years later, as one of the most stable TV shows in the UK.
The reason for the hubbub right now, are the show's Overnight ratings - that's the number of people who watched the show Live, as it was transmitted, or were part of the VOSDAL figures (that's Viewing On Same Day As Live - people who watch a recording/DVR'd version on the same day as broadcast). Last night's episode, Hide, had an overnight audience of 4.98 million, a low not seen since The Lodger in 2010 (4.56 million, for those playing along at home) - quite a dip for the first time this series, partially excused because the majority of the country actually had pleasant weather throughout the evening, but mainly because for the first time this year Doctor Who went up directly against ITV's Ratings Behemoth Britain's Got Talent. A low overnight isn't really surprising though, even given the competition - since 2005, the Overnights figure has been on a consistent decline for Doctor Who:
7.3m - Series 1: Overnight average (13 episodes)
7.2m - Series 2: Overnight average (13 episodes)
7.0m - Series 3: Overnight average (13 episodes)
7.2m - Series 4: Overnight average (13 episodes)
6.0m - Series 5: Overnight average (13 episodes)
5.7m - Series 6: Overnight average (13 episodes)
"But but but!" I hear you crying at your monitor screen, "The ratings are falling! Panic!!"
But don't be Lucille Ball! Not yet, at least. Because whilst yes, the number of live viewers have declined rather drastically, Overnight figures are becoming increasingly irrelevant for TV, especially Drama. Since 2005, the popularity and availability of On-Demand Services (Such as the BBC iPlayer, introduced mid-2008) and DVR set top boxes has had a radical impact on the way people watch television, and Doctor Who has bore the brunt of this sweeping change. Now, rather than overnights, it's one figure that's proving ever more important to Doctor Who:
'The Timeshift' refers to timeshifted viewing figures - people who will record a programme through a DVR device and watch it within up to 7 days of the original broadcast (it doesn't include viewing figures from people who watch online via the iPlayer, but we'll get to that later).
In this day and age, the convenience and low price of DVR devices has led to the viewing audience beginning to eschew the concept of Live viewing. After all, why build your evening around a television programme, when you can record it with the press of a button on your remote, and watch it whenever you want? Doctor Who's audience seem to ask that question more and more as the years have progressed, leading to a growing time shift figure. On average, the number of people who timeshifted Doctor Who in 2005 were an extra 0.64 million viewers, on top of the live audience.
In 2011, for Series 6, that average timeshift figure was 1.79 million. That's almost triple what it was.
This is where timeshifting begins to matter, when we look at the Official Final Rating for a programme, as recorded by the BARB (Broadcasters' Audience Research Board). Basically, a TV show's final rating is a case of simple maths: Overnight Rating + Total Timeshift (viewing figurers from online services aren't factored into BARB's ratings, but they plan on doing so in the next few years). And what the final ratings show is that, despite ever decreasing overnights, the actual audience for Doctor Who has remained remarkably stable over the past 8 years:
7.94m - Series 1: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.71m - Series 2: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.55m - Series 3: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
8.05m - Series 4: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.73m - Series 5: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.52m - Series 6: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
The fact that the show has lasted 8 years is almost a miracle in itself, but the fact that the average ratings have consistently stayed within half a million of each other goes to show that Doctor Who's audience is remarkably loyal, despite so-called-reports of viewers switching off in droves. And that seems to be the case heading into Series 7 as well - not including The Snowmen we have Official BARB Ratings for 8 episodes so far, up to and including Cold War, giving us an average of 7.88 million - putting us on track, bar some extraordinary anomalies, for a pretty successful series overall.
Now we get to the iPlayer, and what Ratings people call 'Overall Reach' - your final BARB figures, plus things like repeats on other channels, and viewings through services online like the iPlayer. While these numbers don't play into the 'Official' ratings yet, they're still important, even more so in this day and age of changing viewing habits. The slight problem is that we, the public, don't have much of the data, as it's only vaguely reported by places like the BBC.
However whilst we don't know much, what we do know is that Doctor Who is consistently one of the iPlayer's biggest hitters - along with the likes of Top Gear and Eastenders, it's frequently one of the most requested shows of the year, every year since the iPlayer service launched back in 2008. So far figures for this year include Over 1.4 million unique requests for The Bells of Saint John and Over 1.77 million for The Rings of Akhaten. Which, considering that's roughly similar to the Timeshifted numbers we see that are included in BARB ratings, is pretty amazing. Almost an extra 2 million people per episode watch the show now, and they're not included in the already healthy Final Ratings!
(See, they were panicking over the ratings even back then, and here we are doing the same thing, 8 years later!)
It just goes to show though, that despite the panic and the doom and gloom, and certainly despite what the papers tell you, Doctor Who is alive and exceedingly well in 2013. As one of the BBC's most lucrative and successful overseas properties, that's probably not going to change any time soon either - but eventually, the numbers will dip, and the show will go away for a while, just like it did in 1989. Who knows, some time after that, some bright spark who grew up watching Christopher Eccleston being chased by Slitheen and is now a grown up TV writer could bring it back. And it'd probably still be pretty successful! That's the joy of Doctor Who - it's that damned TV show that just keeps on changing itself and coming back.
But for now, we should stop panicking - The sky isn't falling, and neither are the ratings. Doctor Who will be with us for quite a while yet.
All Statistics taken from Doctor Who News.