BBC head of events Phil Dolling on why live TV increasingly defines channels, promotes audience loyalty and dominates the overnight ratings

What comes next? 2009 Britain’s Got Talent, 2010 The X Factor, 2011 The Royal Wedding, 2012 The Olympics Closing Ceremony… 

Well if you know your overnights you’ll have spotted these are the highest UK viewing figures for the past four years. The fifth and final winner for 2013 is a tough one, the answer – The New Year’s Eve Fireworks.

It’s a fascinating list and as Head of BBC Events, a great one – it demonstrates the undeniable power of live television and, better still, two of those titles were produced by our department.

It’s also revealing, if you look back to the 1980s and 1990s the list is dominated by soaps, comedy and feature films, back then live TV hardly got a look-in.

So what lies behind this shift in viewing appetites?  Well, there are two very powerful forces converging – human nature and ‘new technology’.

Human beings seek out shared experiences, but they are harder to find as ‘on-demand’ viewing grows. I’ve given up asking what people think about the latest episode of Sherlock or Homeland as I just get shouted down by those who haven’t watched it yet.

Great live programmes are different – whether it’s the Strictly Final or the Olympic Super Saturday you don’t want to watch them the next day, you have to enjoy them with everyone else.

So the more popular ‘on-demand’ becomes, the more live broadcasts stand out as the programmes that get talked about. This experience is then enhanced with more immediate ways of interacting with live programmes, often through social media, creating a sense of inclusion that pre-recorded shows can only dream about.

And, finally, there is that fundamental human driver – fear of missing out (FOMO to use the marketing jargon). The bigger the event the bigger the FOMO – so it’s no surprise it looks like the ratings winner for 2014 is set to be The World Cup Final.

Tapping into human nature using ‘new technology’ is supercharging audience engagement in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

Not for a second am I suggesting that brilliant programmes like Dr Who or Life Story will not have a well-deserved place in the broadcast landscape of the future, but as programmes like these become watched more and more ‘on-demand’ it will be live TV that defines channels, promotes audience loyalty and dominates the overnight ratings.

Phil Dolling is head of events at the BBC

Phil Dolling

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