Look Back in Anxiety: Doctor Who, Season One, 2024 – Part One

Tim Robins reflects on the latest season of Doctor Who and how ratings alone can’t be used to measure the show’s success

Doctor Who – 73 Yards - Art by Fraser Geesin
Art by Fraser Geesin

Before Russell T Davies returned, I wrote a piece indicating the problems Doctor Who faced – and the challenges awaiting the new showrunner. The piece got some pushback but, on reflection, I wouldn’t change a word of it.

The two key challenges that I identified were the audience and the show’s funding. I am not going to pick over specific viewing figures, partly because I no longer know which, if any, really count. Russell T Davies has called the ratings “disappointing”, possibly because the Saturday “overnight” numbers for eyes-on-TV have been good, but not spectacular in the way he might have hoped.

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - The Doctor (Nucti Gatwa)

Traditional telly watching is still something most viewers do. Roughly two thirds of people watched Empire of Death on Saturday. In general, as Sophie Barber for Finder points out, “27.3 million households in the UK had a TV in 2022, which is almost 97% of households in the UK. This is up slightly (0.4%) from 2021, when 27.2 million households had a TV. The number of households with a TV has been increasing year-on-year, suggesting that, despite the popularity of smartphones and tablets, people still like viewing on a television screen”.

I have already mentioned how touching it was to hear a primary school teacher explaining that his young students were really excited by Doctor Who, and sat down to watch it with their parents – and that it was an event for families on Saturday evening. And it wasn’t only children who watched the series with their parents.

There are also serious limitations to seeing ratings as saying anything about the content of an episode especially since, insofar as traditional broadcast TV is concerned, scheduling means that viewing figures can reflect what comes before and after a programme, and what it is scheduled against on other channels. Plus, Smart TV’s give access to YouTube, iplayer and streaming channels, including Netflix and Disney+. There is a lot of competition for eyes on screen. Time shifting, binge-watching and catching up on past seasons can spread audiences thin. This can impact across platforms. 

Doctor Who - Dot and Bubble

Some years back, it was interesting to hear the hosts of YouTube commentary channels (such as James Marriott, PyroCynical and ImAllexx), with a young teen audience, complaining that Love Island was killing their viewing figures. I am not sure that the BBC understands YouTube at all, let alone that it too has schedules with fixed days and times when new episodes on the platform are “dropped”.

This year’s boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest shown after Doctor Who seems to have lost the event over three million viewers and this might have impacted the episode shown before it. On the other hand, I am sure Davies didn’t want Doctor Who pushed down the chart by football coverage.

In contrast, Doctor Who and EastEnders are, apparently, the most time-shifted programmes on the BBC. So increasing the numbers of under thirties means overnight figures must be extended to include time-shifting, something the consolidated ratings try to do. But I’m exhausted by trying to guess what importance viewing figures have within the BBC let alone which ones.

The numbers game really only goes so far. British programmes are rarely canceled because of low ratings.  In my previous article, I wrote: “Doctor Who’s overall ratings may be fine in today’s splintered TV viewing environment, but in recent years, it has lost a key demographic central to ongoing success in its audience – children. This matters to the BBC, particularly as Doctor Who is still seen as family viewing – and that child audience was lost with the decision to make Peter Capaldi The Doctor. Producer Steven Moffat may well have thought Capaldi would have been a wonderful nod to the Hartnell era, but his fannish interest was not echoed by young viewers”.

My point was born out in a Radio Times article titled ‘Doctor Who‘s ratings are a success for Russell T Davies in a way that’s crucial to its future’. There, Davies stated that Doctor Who was “not doing that well in the ratings, but it is doing phenomenally well with the younger audience that we wanted.”

Doctor Who - Space Babies - The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)

Davies said that, in terms of ratings, he was very proud of Doctor Who. “You know, they might not be the ratings we’d love. We always want higher. But they are building over the 28-day period. Episode 1, ‘Space Babies’, is already up to 5.6 million and counting. So it is getting there.”

“I was brought back in to bring in a youthful audience. That’s been massively successful. The audience no one ever gets are the under-30s. They just don’t watch television anymore. But those figures are astronomical for Doctor Who, it’s their top programme in that bracket.”

This is not, as ‘That Park Place’ and other sites would have it, merely “spin” on the part of the showrunner. There is no need for cynicism because audience demographics are a criteria for success for the BBC. Doctor Who (and EastEnders) task is to bring the BBC’s average audience age down from 60-years-old.

Doctor Who‘s ratings on Disney + are another matter altogether and are almost entirely opaque. For a discussion of these I refer you to an excellent piece on Blogtor Who by Peter Nolan, who notes that, in the absence of numerical data, “we can only get a sense of how Doctor Who is performing relative to other shows on Disney+. Moreover, these charts are not broken down by episode. So for example, yesterday Doctor Who was the #6 TV show on Disney+ in the United States. But that included all six episodes on the platform, not just ‘Boom’. Similarly, The Simpsons is above it at #2 but that includes any new views of every Simpsons episode ever – all 767 of them”.

Doctor Who - Boom © BBC

Nolan also point out that even if we did know precise viewing figures for Doctor Who on Disney+ “Streamers often base their judgements by how many new subscribers they get, and how many of them to link, by some calculation, to a given show. How many people around the world took out a Disney+ subscription because of Doctor Who? More to the point, how many people do Disney think did so?”

Nolan concludes, “After decades of being able to be quite precise about Doctor Who’s key performance indicators, we’ve entered a new era where the picture will only become truly clear over time”.

I disagree.

We’ve never been able to be precise about Doctor Who’s key performance indicators because we have never known precisely what they were. For a long while, the role of the BBC’s Appreciation Index was unknown to fans. But I feel other “indicators” are such intangibles as the programme having “champions” within the who recognise the programme’s value. 

Cultural values within the BBC are still critical – even the remnants of its ‘Public Service Ethos’ to education, inform and entertain. This is why Davies has justified the Behind-the Scenes feature Doctor Who Unleashed in terms of its inspirational and educational qualities. Alongside the BBC, we need to factor in the organisational values of Disney, whatever they may be.

Tim Robins

Doctor Who is available on iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ everywhere else, except Ireland

Categories: Doctor Who, Features, Other Worlds, Science Fiction, Television

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2 replies

  1. “that child audience was lost with the decision to make Peter Capaldi The Doctor.”

    Bullsh-t. It takes 5 seconds to find video of Capaldi with kids at the DW Experience. They LOVE him!

  2. It’s interesting the hoops people jump through to explain how this or that TV series is actually successful these days. It can sometimes feel like they’re kids saying “But you’re doing it wrong”. Live viewing figures don’t count, overnights don’t count, it’s the demographic over 28 days that really matters, or over six months, or over a year. Except when you have great live figures, or great overnights, or that everyone watched it and the core demographic becomes simply “people”.

    I’ve been regular writer on Dr Who comics for Immediate Media and for Panini, and I was there when the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor saw the comics put “on hold”. Partly, I suspect that was down to the long gestation period between her announcement and anything appearing. But no comics appeared (well, one solitary special), and her action figures were marked down peg warmers in Forbidden Planet just a few weeks after her debut.

    I’ve not been in FP during the current run, but my feeling is you can probably judge the success of shows like this and Star Wars by how well the merchandise is doing–what’s out there, what’s selling, who’s chasing those licenses. John Freeman here on DTT will no doubt have a better insight into that side of the business.

    If those things aren’t doing well, perhaps I’ll be corrected and told the core audience don’t read, or play with action figures or Top Trumps or whatever it is.

    I say this as someone who watched these episodes live and enjoyed them, so I don’t have a particular negative agenda to espouse. I think they were fun, I think there were some missteps, but it broadly felt well-made and Doctor Who like.

    I’d like to add here that your reviews and analysis have been a welcome read each week or two, Tim. Thanks for your hard work on them.

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