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Overrated ratings

By Nico Franks 31-08-2015

Despite the rise in VoD, one thing last week’s Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival proved is that TV channel bosses remain as obsessed with overnight ratings as ever.

Not for the first time at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival (GEITF), channel heads at the UK’s two biggest broadcasters, the BBC and ITV, last week locked horns over their Saturday night primetime schedules.

This has been a fierce battleground for five decades now, ever since the days of The Generation Game, with classic head-to-heads over the years including Fame Academy (BBC) versus Pop Idol (ITV) and Noel’s House Party (BBC) versus Blind Date (ITV).

But, given the importance placed upon the rise of VoD services and time-shifted viewing, surely talk about scheduling and overnight ratings battles are a thing of the past? Apparently not, if the amount of time TV channel execs devoted to the subject in Edinburgh is anything to go by.

Strictly Come Dancing

Strictly Come Dancing

Indeed, the noise around Strictly Come Dancing vs The X Factor, the current battle in question, highlights that there remains a mass audience who isn’t turning to Netflix et al for entertainment during primetime on a Saturday night.

ITV’s argument whenever it finds itself in battle with BBC1, particularly when the two series share similarities, is that scheduling clashes are not in the interest of the viewer. But there are also egos at stake here, not to mention ad dollars, as well as ratings battle-winning cash bonuses for some commercial channels.

In a heated exchange during the Leaders’ Debate last Wednesday, ITV’s director of television Peter Fincham accused his counterpart at the UK pubcaster, Danny Cohen, of “clipping The X Factor’s wings.”

Of course, if Strictly was a much less popular show then Fincham would surely have no qualms about the ballroom dancing format airing at the same time as his FremantleMedia series. However, last year’s X Factor final was its lowest-rating yet and the channel boss brought in a host of changes to refresh the show, which kicked off its 12th season over the weekend.

Meanwhile, its BBC Worldwide rival, due to begin airing for a 13th season next Saturday, is being eagerly awaited by millions of families across the country.

The X Factor

The X Factor

Fincham says ITV, in a bid to prevent future scheduling clashes, will be confirming the start times of each episode of X Factor in advance so the BBC can avoid crashing the beginning. Cohen, however, refused to rule that out in Edinburgh.

“It’s a game to them but it’s business to us,” said Fincham on the ratings war with the BBC during his one-on-one interview on Thursday, during which he conceded it is a war he’s in danger of losing.

Ironically, however, business at ITV Plc is very good indeed, despite the continued dip in the broadcaster’s ratings. ITV Studios continues to gobble up UK and US production outfits, giving its parent company a healthy bottom line.

So do overnight ratings really matter in modern TV? The reality is that they are still used as a barometer of success by most and getting good ones are what these executives rely on to keep their very highly paid jobs.

The overnights remain paramount at the UK’s commercial channels ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, the heads of which regularly take the opportunity at panel sessions to trot out examples of victory.

Ben Frow, boss of Channel 5, denies overnight ratings are themselves overrated, despite what people say, while Jay Hunt, his opposite number at Channel 4, laments that the rival channels are “locked in a narrative of who beat who at 9pm.”

They’re also important to the BBC, as Fincham pointed out, and it’s unlikely you’d get a channel boss at the Beeb saying so explicitly nowadays, even though they prefer to emphasise reach instead of ratings.

There are many who believe the overnights should be an irrelevance to the BBC, given its public service remit. Detractors have called upon the BBC to ditch “rating-chasing” formats like The Voice, which traditionally goes up against (and often beats) Britain’s Got Talent or Saturday Night Takeaway on ITV.

Fincham refused to bite when asked if he would like to see his rival’s talent show, which ITV technically owns via subsidiary Talpa Media, on his network. The Dutch format is due to begin its fifth run in the UK in January next year.

“The Voice is contracted to the BBC and that’s all I’m going to say,” were the exec’s carefully chosen words when pressed by his interviewer and former ITV director of programmes David Liddiment.

Given Fincham’s clear desire, not to mention commercial imperative, to beat the pubcaster in the ratings, however, maybe that isn’t going to be the case for much longer?

today's correspondent

Nico Franks Reporter
Nico Franks PERSP

Nico Franks is a reporter at C21Media, covering the children's content business for and contributing to C21 International and C21Kids magazines. Nico joined the company in 2012 having previously freelanced for titles such as Clash and BBC Online.

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