Saturday night used to be where the big ratings battle between the BBC and ITV played out, and the attempts to win have led to some iconic TV shows. But after a series of light-entertainment and drama shows have all flopped, is the BBC’s Saturday night streak at an end?
A number of famous shows helped make up the Saturday night schedule in the 1970-90s – Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game, Blind Date, Beadle’s About, Jim’ll Fix It (although that is a bit less fondly remembered now) and a bunch of Noel Edmond’s vehicles. They were fun and light-hearted, and they attracted a huge audience (at their peak, they were surpassing 15 million easily, which not even our most-watched shows nowadays can do).
Even old established shows like Doctor Who have faced a downwards spiral
Attempts to mimic the success of these earlier shows have not gone down well. The BBC has poured money into a number of show launches – Partners in Rhyme, Can’t Touch This, I Love My Country, All Together Now – and none of them have really managed to connect with audiences. A reboot of The Generation Game, hosted by Mel and Sue, was such a bomb that its episode order was slashed in half almost immediately. Even old established shows like Doctor Who have faced a downwards spiral – the most recent series was averaging around 5 million viewers. Sure, for many shows, that’s a great number, but the ratings have only been going down since the end of the Tennant era (Christmas specials not included, but that’s a different case).
The Beeb has tried a new strategy to dominate Saturday night – drama instead of light entertainment – and it has fallen flat. Both Hard Sun and Troy: Fall of a City were hyped up as a bold new experiment and the corporation hoped that they would find an audience and compete with ITV, but neither really connected. Hard Sun, set in a dystopian Britain soon to be destroyed by the Sun, dropped from 3.5 to just over one million viewers over the course of its run – viewers complained that they found it boring and hard to follow.
The Beeb is also trying a number of new formats in the hope that they will catch on with viewers
Troy didn’t fare much better. A co-production with Netflix, the BBC hoped that the show could rival Game of Thrones – instead, its ratings halved to 1.6 million over the course of a few episodes. Again, viewers took to the airwaves to grumble that it was “boring beyond belief” and “ridiculous”. A particularly biting comment stated that “the BBC has yet again succeeded in making interesting subject matter into dull, whispery crap.”
These two flops have helped make this year’s BBC primetime ratings the lowest since records began.
Is there hope for the BBC – can it regain the primetime ground? It still has a ratings hit in Strictly Come Dancing, and it is entirely possible that the introduction of Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor could help reinvigorate Doctor Who’s ratings (it’s going to do that or finish the show off – predictions on a postcard!). The Beeb is also trying a number of new formats in the hope that they will catch on with viewers. One, The Time It Takes, will see Joe Lycett as host, as members of the public race to answer as many questions as possible within the time required to complete specific tasks.
Why should Saturday night be sacred when the shows you want to watch are instantly available
There are many issues at play here, and they don’t just trouble the BBC. A lot of the flagship Saturday night shows are showing their age – The X Factor and Strictly both turn 15 this year, and they’re just full of identical episodes with slightly different faces. The main players now have to compete with 900 other channels, rather than just each other. Then add on the emergence of the steaming services, and the rise of the internet in general – although Saturday nights used to be a time for a family to come together and watch some light-entertainment, that simply isn’t the viewing picture anymore. Why should Saturday night be sacred when the shows you want to watch are instantly available, on-demand, at any time you want?
The end of Saturday night was heralded when Blind Date’s ratings declined in 2003, but the arrival of The X Factor and Strictly soon brought in what many claimed was a golden age. Perhaps all the genre needs is a new show that really catches the public’s attention? As to what that could be, I couldn’t tell you. If you’ve got an idea, get in touch with the BBC – they’re rather in need of it!