There are two dreaded words that pretty much decide everything you ever watch on British television. And no, those words aren’t “Jeremy Clarkson”. They are words you may not have heard before, but words that make every TV producer, commissioner, presenter and advertiser shake with fear. I’m talking about “The Overnights”.
The overnights are a big spreadsheet showing the viewing figures for every show on every channel, and they basically decide the fate of every new programme on television. They arrive via email at 9.30 every morning. Even on Christmas Day.
It’s essentially the television equivalent of the daily sales figures in any branch of Greggs, or, for any teachers reading, like a terrifying mini-Ofsted report every morning.
The overnights are terrifying because they never lie. They tell you, in black and white, whether your show is successful or not. It doesn’t matter if all your friends have been talking about it, or it’s been trending on Twitter, or if your mum texted to say that she enjoyed it. What matters is this – did anyone actually watch?
Sometimes they bring great news. Some shows launch immediately with huge ratings. Recent examples would be Call the Midwife on BBC1 or Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on Channel 4. In both cases the channels and the programme-makers can sit back at 9.31am, smile, and know they have a hit on their hands. Viewers are happy, their bosses will be happy, their children will eat for another day.
But, more often, the converse is true. However much you might love your show and believe in it, sometimes people just won’t watch. It can be brutal.
That Saturday-night drama you’ve spent the past 18 months of your life writing, pitching, selling, filming and editing? No one watched. The quiz format that could save your entire company? No one watched. The eight-part guide to Egyptology with the Krankies? No one watched. Though you probably should have seen that one coming. At 9.29 you can have a dream, and at 9:31 it has become a nightmare.
Of course the overnights are not absolutely everything; all channels do still have other priorities that run alongside them. The BBC, for example, places huge store by another viewer measure, the Audience Appreciation Index (AI). If a show gets low figures, but everybody watching it loves it, then that is a hit for the BBC. A show such as Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle benefits from this. Disappointingly for cultural snobs, though, it is usually the shows with the highest ratings that also have the highest AI figures, too.
So by and large the overnights still rule the industry. Which is, of course, to say that the viewers rule the industry. Critics might have hated Mrs Brown’s Boys, but the BBC could see, at 9:30am following the very first transmission, that the viewers disagreed. And each week from then onwards, they saw the figures rise and rise.
In fact the overnights answer all the questions that can sometimes leave us baffled about television. Why did that show I love get axed? Why does that show I hate keep returning? How does Piers Morgan keep getting work?
Of course, if you are under the age of 12 there are two different dreaded words that pretty much decide everything you ever watch on British television. Bed time.
Some things don’t change
I am loving Royal Marines Commando School (Mondays C4). I remember the BBC making an almost identical documentary in the 1980s and I loved that, too. I hope that the teenage me would be pleased that the 43-year-old me has literally not changed or matured at all.
Richard Osman co-hosts Pointless (Monday-Friday 5:15pm, BBC2)