Why Spooks can’t compete with Downton Abbey on Sunday night

Putting the two dramas head to head seems like a strange way to "celebrate" Spooks's retirement

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What’s your favourite TV drama?  There’s only one way to find out… fight!

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That’s right, there will be ratings blood next Sunday (18 September) as one of the BBC’s biggest dramas, Spooks, airs at the same time as ITV’s enormously popular period drama, Downton Abbey, in the 9pm slot.

It’s the tenth and final series of glossy Kudos spy show Spooks, a mainstay of the Beeb’s weeknight drama schedules for the best part of a decade.  And how have they chosen to “celebrate
this and make it a special event for viewers”?  They’ve put it up against the best rating ITV drama in living memory…

Now call me old-fashioned, but if I really wanted to give Spooks the grand sendoff it deserved, I’d keep it on Monday night, where its six million viewers expect to see it.  OK, it would be up against Doc Martin on ITV1 (a big ratings pull for the commercial channel), but at least it’d have a sporting chance on its own turf.  On Sunday, I fear it will slowly wither and die – which considering it’s been signed off and paid for (never to return) perhaps isn’t such a worry for the corporation?

A BBC statement defends the decision, claiming that “It is not unusual for drama to go up against drama here, for
example, David Tennant’s Single Father did last year, and ITV’s Vera
was up against BBC1’s Exile earlier this year.”

Yes, it has happened before – but does that mean it’s a good idea, or beneficial to drama fans? I’m not so sure.

When Single Father (starring ex-Doctor and ratings dynamite David Tennant) took on Downton Abbey in October 2010, its four parts averaged a relatively disappointing 5.2 million viewers for the BBC, a 17 per cent audience share – with the third part of the series falling well below the magic five million milestone. 

Meanwhile, Downton series one (which had seven episodes from late September to early October) averaged a staggering 9.26 million viewers with almost double the Beeb’s audience share, 31 per cent. 

So why did this happen – is Downton just better than everything else?

Yes and no. 

It’s true that Julian Fellowes’s Edwardian drama is a great programme – but there’s slightly more to it than that. Sunday nights in autumn on ITV1 are magic, and that’s because of Simon Cowell.

In the 8pm to 9pm slot is The X Factor: The Results – and between you and me, a lot of people watch it.  Indeed in 2010, the programme barely ducked below 14 million viewers and numbers climbed to a mammoth 16.5 million (51 per cent share) by final night. 

In TV terms, having the slot after this show is a huge benefit, as Downton has found, and will find again.  A hefty inherited audience kick-starts any programme’s ratings, and if it’s any good (like Downton) a lot of people will stay. They might even forget about that spy drama they intended to watch on the other side…

Yes, in the 21st century the way we watch TV is changing – it’s all iPlayer this and ITV Player that, Sky+ this and Tivo the other, but as much as I’d like to convince you that Spooks isn’t going to suffer from this scheduling, I can’t.  The reality of the matter is that most people still like their TV on a plate, without having to record, rewind or hunch over a laptop.

No, Spooks is sunk – and many drama fans will be disappointed that they have to make the choice.  Little good comes from such head-to-head battles, as we saw when The X Factor and Strictly briefly locked horns.

“Downton and Spooks are very different shows and offer a real alternative for audiences,” say the BBC.

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I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about that.  I’m off to set my Sky+…