BBC promotional material
Show Hide image

Predicted the death of broadcast TV? Then have I got news for you

Death by a thousand Netflix clicks? Broadcast viewing figures tell a different story. 

Broadcast TV is dead. Television ratings have been declining since 1981 at the latest, and have more recently entered a terminal spiral. 1981 was when the creation of the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (Barb) established a single method for calculating how many people were watching any television channel. This made the number of viewers of BBC and ITV programmes directly comparable for the first time.

Barb endures, its methods updated, and it’s now used for all channels from BBC One to QVC HD +1 and everything in between. It’s because of Barb that we know that the most-watched programme of 2015 - The Great British Bake Off Final - managed 16.03m viewers, and that this is just over two thirds of the audience of 23.3m that saw the most-watched UK TV transmission of 1981. (It wasn’t what you think it was, by the way, we’ll come back to that at the end.)

Yet, despite the explosion of multi-channel television in the thirty five years between those figures, the most-watched television programmes of any year are now, as then, on BBC One and ITV. In any given week, only BBC Two and, even less frequently, Channel 4 might have a chance of pushing into the weekly top ten, but anything further down the programme planner will be even further down any integrated chart.

“Ah, but,” people say, “It’s all about streaming, iPlayer and online now, isn’t it?” Well, those things certainly exist, and because of them Barb’s Project Dovetail, launched in 2016, incorporates data from broadcasters’ online operations into their standard reports. Dovetail, though, only applies to online arms of recognised broadcasters, including those that didn’t exist when Barb was created. Sky’s channels are assessed through both this and more traditional methods. It’s from them we know that fewer people in the UK watched Sky Atlantic’s most-ever-watched episode of Game of Thrones than did that same week’s episode of The Great British Sewing Bee on BBC Two. Including time-shifting, SkyGo and in-the-week repeats.

However, it’s undeniably true that we don’t know how many people are watching Netflix or Amazon Prime’s original material. Statements are occasionally made, but data isn’t shared. There are no agreed points of comparison. We do know that Netflix has c5m subscribers in the UK. So, hypothetically, if three people per account watched the same programme, it could add up to the viewership of the Bake Off Final. Given that BBC One’s numbers were drawn from a potential viewership many times the size (because tens of millions more people have tellies than have Netflix) it doesn’t seem likely. Frankly, if it’d happened they’d be hollering about it from the rooftops.

Intriguingly, the US company Symphony AM, which uses a technique not dissimilar to Barb’s to calculate US viewership, once produced its own figures for US (not UK) Netflix use. They calculated that there were around 8.5m US viewers watching Netflix’s biggest series, Fuller House, a sequel to a 1990s US sitcom with little recognition factor in the UK. Netflix called this "remarkably inaccurate", but declined to produce any figures of their own in rebuttal.

Meanwhile, Barb’s first ever Project Dovetail report concluded that Cuckoo, Happy Valley and Call the Midwife were the most in-demand of "on-demand" programmes, all three being BBC series that were already doing well. There aren’t, it seems, programmes that no one watches on transmission, and which gain most their viewers via catch up. (The arguable exception is imports that simulcast with US transmissions, being nominally shown at 2am before being "repeated" 20 hours later.)

Timeshift changes the numbers, but not what we watch. Something doesn’t sneak up from behind the back because all its viewers, perhaps from a different (assumed to be younger?) demographic, are watching by a different method. An example: Sherlock’s 2014 premiere created an all-time record for timeshifting: 3.5m viewers. That’s almost a third of its audience, arguably a significant chunk, but it’s also inherently much less than half. Most people who saw the programme saw it when it was broadcast. Not afterwards.

If you ignore 2012, where the London Olympics’ Opening and Closing Ceremonies pulled in extraordinary numbers of viewers, the most-watched television programmes of the year have seen a small, but definite, upswing in their ratings this decade, starting at 13.5m and building to 16.03m. This suggests either that television viewership is actually increasing, or that viewers who decamped to other methods of watching are being included again thanks to methodological changes. The repeated, stunning ratings success of the New Year’s fireworks on BBC One may point to the former being true, larger audiences being a consequence of the reduced entertainment budgets of many in austerity Britain.

So, the programmes that are most seen by shiny new methods are the same ones seen on transmission, and those methods deliver fewer viewers than dusty old-fashioned broadcast? Still. Why is that? Live events, such as football matches, finals of talent shows and Royal occasions have always featured strongly in weekly and yearly top tens of programmes. Such things are generally watched live or not at all. A sense of communal watching, of shared experience, is only possible by everyone doing it at the same time, and while that inevitably means on broadcast, it no longer has to involve everyone socialising being in the same room.

Social media platforms, accused so often of driving people apart, merely provide another means of human contact. Certain corners of Twitter and Facebook come alive during televised football matches, especially those on BBC and ITV. And such things aren’t confined to live events. BBC Four’s Top of the Pops repeats routinely cause #TOTP to top its list of UK trending hashtags as viewers try and top each others’ jokes about acts’ hair or clothes, or indulge in nostalgic reminiscences of the era the episode is from.

Perhaps surprisingly, this online communalism does extend to drama series, despite the obvious fact that if you’re writing and tweeting jokes about a television drama series while watching it, you’re not paying enough attention to it. It may be because of things like this that this year already four drama series on BBC One or ITV, Broadchurch, Call The Midwife, Sherlock and the Moorside have been seen by more than 10m people, and several more have come close to it. In early January, when the New Year’s Day episode of Sherlock reported overnights of 11.33m I confidently asserted it would be the most watched drama series of 2017, as it had been in 2016 and 2014 and 2012, but now I’m not so sure.

The UK is the historical home of television. The pre-war BBC Television Service is usually regarded as the first regular television channel and we watch, proportionately and in absolute terms, a lot of it. The 10m viewers enjoying the BBC's biggest dramas represent more than a fifth of British adults. Compare that with the USA, say, where the two biggest series on television (inexplicably The Big Bang Theory and NCIS) draw around 19m viewers a week from a population five times the size of the UK’s. Television is very much our thing, and it seems like we’re not letting it go, however much those who try to predict the medium’s future want us to.

Online hasn’t killed terrestrial broadcast TV, anymore than multichannel, catch-up or VHS did. And in each case, there were plenty who were certain it would. New delivery methods account for far less of our viewing habits than terrestrial television does, and by far the largest share of terrestrial television is still seen on broadcast. Short of another London Olympics, we’ll never again see numbers like those gained by the 1981 premiere of Jaws, which knocked that year’s Royal Wedding off the top of the yearly chart, but broadcast TV is not dead.

It isn’t even resting.


Show Hide image

Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

0800 7318496