How we rate our telly

by Stephen Tall on August 1, 2006

If there’s two things I’ve always had a weakness for they’re: telly and statistics. So, unsurprisingly, I find myself irresistibly drawn – like a moth to a flame, or David Cameron to pastel-coloured vacuities – to MediaGrauniad’s TV Overnights, which reports the audience figures of the previous day’s viewing.

For instance, I now know that last night 7.3 million of us were watching Emmerdale, representing a 39% share of the available TV audience at that time. (And if you haven’t yet seen it, I do commend the current Emmerdale “It’s far from quiet in the country” trailer to you – watch it here. Genius.) This tells me that 18.7 million people in Britain were last night sat watching telly at 7.00 pm – or 31% of the UK’s total population. Which is currently estimated at 60,609,153, by the way.

Now to celebrate their 25th ‘birthday’ – why does everything have to be bloody anthropomorphised? It’s their anniversary, not a birthday – BARB, the ratings experts, have published the listings for the Top 10 programmes in each year since 1981. It throws up some interesting quirks. For example, the Royal Wedding of Charles and Di was watched by 39 million of us (ah yes, I remember it well); yet Diana’s funeral attracted fewer than half that, 19.3 million viewers, indicating they were wrong to split, as neither have found such success as solo artistes. I guess Charles is the Art Garfunkel to Diana’s Paul Simon.

Some things, of course, haven’t changed. Coronation Street – the only show to feature in each and every year – is still a ratings winner: it peaked at 18.8m in 1981, and pulled in 12.6m in March this year. The Royal Variety Performance continues to exert an enduring, and frankly perverse, fascination: it features in the top 10 in 1984, 1988 and 2001. Only one news programme, though, has ever made it into the top 10 in any one year – the ITN News on 25th April, 1982, was watched by 17.3m people. It was the day the Royal Marines landed in South Georgia, and re-captured the Falkland Islands.

The genres that emerge as losers are films and game shows. Sixteen films were top 10 draws in the 1980s; only Billy Elliott’s terrestrial premiere, in 2003, has made the grade this millennium. Video may not have killed the radio star; but it has slaughtered the Big Event movie. And the days when Family Fortunes, Name That Tune and Play Your Cards Right could rivet 16 million or more viewers to their sofas have long since passed – “Nice to see you, to see you… where have you gone?”

So what dominates our collective viewing habits now? Well, football for a start: one-quarter of the top-rated shows since 2000 have been soccer matches, six of them in 2006 alone. This points to an unsurprising phenomenon: the success of live, or ‘as live’, TV programmes, when the national consciousness is gripped – whether by the hype, or genuine excitement of a show whose ending is unpredictable.

* In 2001, it was Popstars (who could forget Hear’Say? To ask the question is to answer it);
* then, in 2002, there was Gareth v Will’s nail-biting Pop Idol Final;
* the next year, 2003, we were gripped by Tara, Tony and Rhona in the I’m A Celebrity jungle (and, again, in 2004 and 2005);
* in 2005, Comic Relief and Strictly Come Dancing showed up to the party;
* and, this year, desperate spin-off, Dancing On Ice – The Skate Off, somehow muscled in, with 11.7 million viewers.

The more choice we as individuals have of what we watch, and when we watch it, the stronger the desire we appear to have to come together – as family and friends – to participate in a shared, and often tense, experience. It might be a reality telly final, a penalty shoot-out, or the re-generation of Dr Who: we all want to be there, and to be able to say who we were there with.

However much we value our own private space, it is our public space – our common cultural realm – which gives real pleasure, real meaning.