When TV schedulers get it wrong… and the viewer suffers

ITV's The Bletchley Circle and BBC1's The 7:39 should never have been put up against each other, says Ben Dowell


So you spend years creating a TV drama, from idea to finished version – and then the arduous and expensive process of filming it takes place.


You hope senior channel executives like it and then you wait for a scheduling spot. Ad then… well, then things can go really wrong…

It certainly didn’t look right in the listings – and in practice it didn’t turn out too well either as last night’s clash of female-skewed drama The 7.39 and The Bletchley Circle cannibalised each other’s audience at 9pm.

The 7:39, the first of David Nicholls’ two-part piece about illicit love on a London commuter train, just about came out on top.

According to the overnight ratings, the drama starring David Morrissey, Sheridan Smith and Olivia Colman attracted an audience of 5.7m, a 22.6% share (if one includes the BBC1 HD figures).

Also showing at 9pm, over the hour, The Bletchley Circle, ITV’s starry drama about a gang of five former code breakers who go on to solve crimes after World War II has ended, pulled in a fairly decent 4.5 million viewers, an 18% share if one includes ITV1 HD and +1.

But should these shows have ever been up against each other at all?

Yes, this may involve make clunkingly bovine assumptions and assertions about the gender demarcation of TV viewing and tastes, so perhaps the oft-used TV phrase “female-skewed” is not helpful here.

But it strikes me as fairly obvious that the kind of people who liked The 7:39 –a romantic drama about illicit love between two commuters – probably would have also gone for The Bletchley Circle – a drama about group of super smart, super interesting super all-female World War II code breakers.

Yes we live in a multichannel age of +1 and catch-up, but watching it live still accounts for the majority of TV viewing.

The full year figures for 2013 are not available yet, but in 2012 we in the UK watched an average of four hours a day of linear TV, 89% of which is watched live as it was broadcast.

The fact that during peak time TV hours (6.30pm – 10pm) 40 per cent of tweets in Britain are about television shows highlights the enduring power of the curated linear schedule.

The BBC has made halfhearted promises not to engage in this kind of macho scheduling when two similar shows are pitted against each other.

Fortunately this has meant that The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing rarely compete head-to-head directly now.

But why is this still allowed to happen with dramas?

Arguably talent shows require real time viewing more than dramas. But dramas are still part of the national – and the work water cooler – conversation. Need we look further than Broadchurch in 2013 for an example of this.


We deserve scheduling that puts the viewers first – but when will we get it?