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X Factor eclipses Corrie

The X Factor’s 20 million viewers mark it out as more than just a big show for ITV1. The reason for this success? As Simon Cowell might put it, the programme engages one million percent with its audience.

But this extraordinary series of the show has also put X Factor into a place that has belonged, for the last 50 years, to another ITV programme. The X Factor is ITV’s biggest programme, and it has enabled the network to rediscover a programming dominance which, in recent times, seemed no longer to exist for the UK’s biggest commercial network.

According to the overnight BARB numbers for Sunday’s Final show, it had an average of 16 million/51% share. That compares with the 13.4 million/49% share for Thursday’s live Coronation Street, part of the soap’s 50th anniversary programme offering.

While Corrie has enjoyed its birthday celebrations, it is impossible to escape from the conclusion that a programme which has been – since the beginning of the network - ITV1’s biggest programme, has been eclipsed by X Factor.

This is bound to have repercussions in terms of how ITV will behave in future - Coronation Street has always been the benchmark against which all ITV shows are judged. No longer. This changes the centre of gravity for ITV in all sorts of ways.

For instance, Coronation Street has been defined by being engaged in trench warfare with the other big soap entity, BBC1’s EastEnders. For a while X Factor was also defined through its competition with Strictly Come Dancing – did viewers prefer music or dance?

But this series, the BBC has stepped back from over competition with X Factor, which explains to a large extent the record breaking audiences for X Factor.

The show has also redefined the ITV1 schedule, extending the network’s appeal beyond the traditional, Corrie-loving ITV core audience. For X Factor’s Final, 40% of the audience were aged from 4 to 34 years old – for Corrie Live it was 28% (data: Attentional).

ITV would probably argue that the revenue brought in by Coronation Street speaks for itself, so don’t knock it. And I won’t, but I can’t help feeling that the last few days have been a point when something that had been an accepted fact has been changed because a programme which always regards itself as being the heartbeat for the network has been supplanted.

The clue to what has happened can be found in the expensive special effects storyline – the tram crash – which always gives an audience spike.

Sometimes this can have the effect of reviving a moribund soap - I worked with Phil Redmond during the Emmerdale aircrash episodes. But explosions also come from a mindset which requires bigger, more elaborate spectaculars. The soap’s values change.

The X Factor has given ITV a momentum that asks serious questions of competitors, particularly BBC1 under a new controller - ironically he’s inherited BBC1’s decision not to compete with X Factor, which has helped it supercharge its performance this year.

There are those who argue that this is also a back-to-the-future moment, that the glory days of ITV1 are back again thanks to X Factor, Corrie, Celebrity and, new this autumn, Downton Abbey. This argument goes on to stretch the point to suggest TV is under less pressure from new media than had been thought.

I’m not so sure – ITV’s strength also sucks audience away from its competitors, BBC and Channel 4. In the olden days – the 1990s – that was something they could live with, but in the digital age, if one channel scoops the audience, then others will feel the squeeze more dramatically than in the past.

That’s not to argue what ITV has achieved will be a threat to other channels, simply that they too will need to be as innovative as ITV has been in terms of creating television which engages.

Philip Reevell is managing director, City Broadcasting, and blogs about TV at Reevellsratings.

Posted 13 December 2010 by Philip Reevell

Figuring out BBC4's future

When a big review is published, like the recent one on BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4 undertaken by the BBC Trust, it can take a little while to figure out what is being said behind the regulatory language.

For instance, what does this mean: “We will amend BBC Four’s service licence to reflect more clearly its editorial direction and focus.”

I think we could paraphrase it to say – we’re not sure what BBC4 is for these days, so we’re going to sharpen it up a bit. The Trust then goes on to say one of the main challenges for BBC4 in future is to “secure a greater reputational dividend for the BBC”.

That’s a pretty frank statement to be making about a channel which is really only a “reputational” entity – never mind the ratings, feel the quality.

The strategic rationale for the channel was to secure the cultural high ground, held in radio by Radio 4 and Radio 3. If it isn’t doing that, what is it doing?

BBC4 has enjoyed a licence to be obscure, provided it keeps up a steady flow of awards, favourable press reviews and occasional ratings success.

The channel was launched by Roly Keating in 2002 – he went on to be BBC2 controller in 2004 having set a template of archive programming and some dramatised history. For Janice Hadlow, who followed him, BBC4 was a platform to try out programming ideas, particularly in drama, which have subsequently proved successful on BBC2, where she is now controller.

But now it looks like the Trust has stopped the music and the current controller, Richard Klein, is left holding the parcel.

One specific recommendation in the Trust report caught my eye, as it underlines the gap between the Trust’s view of the channel and the BBC management. “BBC management should explore ways to increase the impact of its world news programme on BBC Four.”

A quick look at the audience for World News Today, the global news programme which is broadcast weeknights on BBC4 at 7pm, reveals what they are concerned about. In the last four weeks, the highest audience achieved by the 30 minute programme was 73,000 viewers/0.36% share, and the lowest was 19,200 viewers/0.09%. In the period, its average audience was 40,000/018% share. And over 56% of that audience were aged over 65 years old.

But I wonder how the Trust thinks it will be possible to increase the impact of the programme, which is actually a BBC World Service news programme presented by Zeinab Badawi, simultaneously broadcast on BBC4 and BBC World Service.

Its remit is international – which puts it at a disadvantage at 7pm to Channel 4 News if the viewer wants a more domestic focus on the day’s news. What makes matters worse for World News Today is having to open the channel’s schedule at 7pm, so it does not benefit from any inheritance, nor does there seem to be any cross-promotional effort at 7pm. Perhaps that is what the Trust really wants – some promos on BBC1 and BBC2 at 7pm, driving people to the BBC4 News.

Of course that is an inherent problem showing a specialised news programme on a digital channel aimed at a niche audience – ask Channel 4, which used to have More4 News until December 2009. Perhaps this has informed the Trust’s thinking – does it see an opportunity to recover some lost ground?

On the other hand, why should viewers turn to BBC4 at 7pm for an in-depth news programme, a time that is effectively owned by Channel 4 News.

Are there any other ways BBC4 could create impact for its World News? By running it in primetime at 8pm or 9pm – not if its 7pm ratings are anything to go by, as it would put a major dent into BBC4’s more mainstream programming.

Between 7pm and 10.30pm in the period from mid October to mid November, BBC4’s average audience was 218,000, 0.98% share.

It can hardly afford to replace a programme such as the quiz Only Connect, which had over 500,000 viewers last Monday at 8pm, with a news programme rating at around a tenth of that at 7pm.

Why invest in a low-rating domestic digital channel at a time when the BBC World Service is being cut back? Why not put more money into the World News itself so that it could make a bigger impact on BBC4.

And once you embark on that line of thinking, you start to wonder why there is not much more traffic between the World Service and BBC4 – there’s a great portfolio of programmes already on the World Service, shouldn’t they have some greater prominence in the UK?

Posted 23 November 2010 by Philip Reevell

Can leaders debate finale top 10m viewers?

How will this week’s third and final election leaders debate rate? The first, two weeks ago, had the sensational outcome of being a real game-changer, catapulting Nick Clegg to a 30% share of voting intentions.

This week it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the outcome of the election could depend on a single 90 minute programme.

In my previous blog I suggested that the audience benchmark had been set by the figures achieved last year by the Question Time programme featuring the BNP, which had 8.3 million viewers. This pointed to the debate achieving a substantial audience. So it proved with 9.5 million people watching the ITV programme.

Last week’s follow-up debate on Sky also delivered big, by the standards of a digital channel, but not on the same scale as the first ITV1 debate. According to Attentional, the audience on Sky News was an impressive 2.1 million and taking into account simulcasts and repeats, the debate had an audience of 4.4 million.

However, although this was a big audience by digital standards, it was not significant in terms of being able to move the polls. For the pundits the significance of the debate was the inability of the two major parties to peg-back Clegg. For the TV audience-watcher the question it raises is whether the gap between the first and second debate will impact on the audience for the third debate on BBC1.

If this were a conventional reality competition, the fact that the second show had less than half of the audience of the first would be taken as a sign of lack of interest from the audience. Different conventions apply here. More likely the nation will turn to the BBC, as it does for other major occasions, such as the World Cup, in order to make up its mind.

In which case the audience figure to watch is that which is being achieved by the one of the biggest competition shows on TV, Britain’s Got Talent, which had an audience of over 10 million for its second show in the new series, last Saturday. It seems highly likely that the leaders debate will draw a bigger audience than the first ITV debate, so a 10 million-plus audience should be on the cards.

Of course, if it turns out that the Sky News debate took some of the wind out of the sails of the election programmes, then 10 million may turn out to be something of a challenge. If the show rates lower than the ITV programme, it’s likely to spell bad news for the Liberal Democrats.

So who will win the final leaders debate? Sometimes in these talent competitions, the unheralded contender who emerges from the early auditions falls narrowly at the final hurdle to a more conventional figure. Sometimes, however, the final provides the impetus to stardom. Is Nick Clegg’s unexpected breakthrough going to propel him to a phenomenal win, like Susan Boyle. Or could the voting intentions of the electorate diverge from their viewing patterns at the last minute?

Philip Reevell is managing director of City Broadcasting. His Reevell's Ratings blog can be found at:

Posted 26 April 2010 by Philip Reevell

Will the election rate with viewers?

The start of the election campaign means we can look forward to the three debates with the party leaders, the first of which will be on 15th April at 8.30pm on ITV1. How popular do we think they will be? I think we can assume they will draw substantial audiences. There’s a real public appetite for knowledge and an established interest in set-piece debates.

The benchmark for political debate was set by last year’s Question Time featuring the BNP’s Nick Griffin which had an audience of 8.3 million/50% share, with almost a million more watching on the iPlayer. Bearing in mind that the leaders debate will occupy 90 primetime minutes, the figure of 8 million should be a realistic target for what will be a first on television in this country.

Will the two following debates match it? Much depends on whether the format proves entertaining enough. If the dry run with the Chancellors on Channel 4 last week is anything to go on, then there seems to be some strength of interest in political debate for this election. Ask the Chancellors had a strong audience of 1.7 million/7% share in the Monday night 8pm Dispatches slot, well ahead of most of the current affairs programmes which occupy that slot.

One reason why viewers will embrace the debates can be found in the weekend’s entertainment shows – people love to engage in voting competitions, such as the latest Lloyd-Webber search for a star competition, BBC1’s Over the Rainbow. There is a however a gulf between the most effective of voting competitions, ITV’s X Factor, and weaker strains of the genre – Over the Rainbow’s Saturday show had 5.4 million/25% share at 7.30pm, following in the slipstream of the new Dr Who which launched with 7.6 million/35% share. In contrast Sunday’s Over the Rainbow results show had just 3.6 million/19% share at 6.15pm, suggesting the audience has not engaged with the competition in this early stage.

The worst thing that could happen to the politicians is that the public decides, after the first debate, that the format or the contestants are not sufficiently interesting. There are flaws with the format – just three contestants and only three programmes. In the entertainment world, the programmes would be spread over a longer period of time.

And, perhaps crucially, we should bear in mind that there’s no telephone vote at the end of the three debates. Anyone who wants to vote in the next leader of the country will have to wait a few days and then leave the house in order to make the trip to a polling booth in an old fashioned sort of way. Maybe these flaws will put the ratings potential of political debate as entertainment to a serious test.

On the other hand, evidence from America suggests the debates are also capable of creating drama to match the final of most entertainment shows. I suppose the good news is we’ll know who’s going to be the next Prime Minister before the nation chooses the next Dorothy.

Philip Reevell is managing director of City Broadcasting. His Reevell's Ratings blog can be found at:

Posted 07 April 2010 by Philip Reevell
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