“... but the popular sci-fi series attracted the worst ratings ever recorded”.
As a lifelong Whovian (Doctor Who fan) it was a shock to see this sentence repeated across various national news websites, reporting what appeared to be a disastrous return for Doctor Who on New Year's Day. The reason it was such a shock is that the episode in question (called ‘Spyfall’) was overwhelmingly acclaimed by critics and viewers. But it was also a shock because I had already found out the viewing figures for the episode and so knew this story was simply untrue. The ratings were good, not bad, and certainly not "the worst ratings ever recorded”.
With overnight figures (those who watched it at the time of broadcast or later the same day) of 4.8m, Doctor Who was in fact the most watched show on the BBC on New Year’s Day and the second most watched TV show in the country. The 28-day total (which includes all those who will watch the episode at some point in the next month) will most likely take the ratings to more than 7m - and it is that final figure that's increasingly important to TV land. As I said, these are good ratings!
Many fans like me posted on Twitter that the “worst ratings ever recorded” story was complete hokum and later that day many of the online versions of that story where updated as follows; “Doctor Who's return on New Year's Day loses THREE million viewers on last series”.
This was a different but equally negative story. So where did this ‘loses THREE million viewers’ angle come from?
This is a reference to Jodie Whittaker’s first appearance as the Doctor in the episode called "The Woman Who Fell to Earth", broadcast on 7 October 2018. The show had an enormous (but temporary) boost of interest largely due to the Doctor now being played by a woman and that episode had astonishing overnights of 8.2m and a 28-day total of 11.456m. Wow!
Sadly, the success of "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" has become something of an albatross around the neck of this new era of Doctor Who because within a month of its broadcast some of those additional viewers were gone and the ratings for the rest of Jodie's first season settled into a more familiar pattern; each episode was getting 5m-5.5m in overnights and 28-day figures of about 7.5m. To be clear, those are still fantastic viewing figures and the reason I said ‘familiar pattern’ is that they are the same ratings Matt Smith enjoyed during his four years as the Doctor from 2010.
But whilst such ratings were celebrated as a great success during the Matt Smith era this has not been the case for Jodie Whittaker. Some reporters and, surprisingly, some Whovians keep referencing the ‘loses THREE million viewers’ angle by making unfavourable comparisons between the current viewing figures and the super-ratings of her first few episodes.
This angle is often coupled with a claim that the show has lost millions of viewers because of a perceived “PC agenda”, which included the first female Doctor, two companions who are not white and (award winning) stories based around Rosa Parks and the events preceding the partition of India. For me, these claims are hokum. Very simply, those super-ratings were caused by a few million viewers dipping in temporarily to see what a female Doctor was like. And even once that temporary boost was over, we were still left with fantastic viewing figures.
At this point it is worth mentioning that since Doctor Who returned to our screens almost 15 years ago it did suffer one period of worrying ratings decline. This began in 2015 during Peter Capaldi’s second season as the Doctor and culminated in the show's actual lowest viewing figure during his third and final season; “The Eaters of Light” was broadcast on 17 June 2017 with overnights of just 2.89m and a 28-day total of 5.12m.
It was felt the show needed a refresh and a relaunch and certainly since "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" its viewing figures have returned to rude health. So why is it that overnights of 5m/5.5m and 28-day figures of about 7.5m were considered a huge success for the show a decade ago, but the same figures now are reported with such disastrous rhetoric?
Partly, I think, it is because not all reporters understand the way viewing figures are recorded and accumulated over a period of time. I still sometimes see figures that I know are overnights from current episodes being wrongly and unfavourably compared with 28-day figures from years gone by. But partly, also, it just makes a better story to (wrongly) report "the worst ratings ever recorded”. And, as mentioned earlier, there are those who simply think the Doctor should be a white man travelling with a white female companion, and who will grab at any data they feel shows the current era of Who has been a terrible mistake, even if it means being somewhat disingenuous in the way that data is presented (most notably by referring to those super-ratings from October 2018).
The truth, though, is that this female Doctor and her multiracial companions have been a triumph and have delivered to the show to the sort of viewing figures it was enjoying a decade ago. And consider, if you will, the massive expansion of choice viewers have nowadays compared to 2010, with the development of so much original content across platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and others. Indeed by matching the 2010 ratings Jodie and the show’s writers, producers and cast have pulled off quite a feat.
Prior to Spyfall, the most recent episode of Doctor Who had been shown exactly a year earlier on New Year’s Day 2019. That episode pulled in very similar overnight ratings of 5.15m, and its 28-day total was 7.361m. So, it is very likely Spyfall will end up with a similar 28-day total. Indeed, with the incredibly positive reaction it received it may even do better. I hope the rest of season 12 will continue to be successful and will be watching to see if that success is reported more accurately.