Mark Gatiss: overnight figures are “insane” – people will be watching Doctor Who long after Bake Off is over

The Doctor Who writer and Sherlock co-creator argues that the way the television industry judges success is outtdated

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Doctor Who writer and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss has said that judging the success of a show based on overnight figures is “insane” – adding that the legacy Doctor Who leaves will outlast anything Bake Off or The X Factor can supply.

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“The ratings system is insane and iniquitious,” Gatiss – who has written upcoming Who episode Sleep No More – tells the latest issue of Radio Times. “I’ve seen grown men crying because their show got 6.3 million [viewers] instead of a hoped-for 6.5. They make a difference to a person’s career.”

The subject of ratings has dogged this series of Doctor Who, with the first episode of series nine falling to a reported ’10-year low’ – when scheduled against The X Factor and the Rugby World Cup.

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Overnight figures are measured by The Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) and calculated using 5,100 households with special set-top boxes, which track what each member of the family is watching when. From those numbers, estimates for the whole viewing population can be made.

However, as Gatiss explains, these polls only provide a “thumbnail sketch” of the entire audience, and do not take into account viewers on services like BBC iPlayer. 

The result, Gatiss argues, is that undue pressure is put on the show every year: “That’s the modern world we live in and I’m not being defensive, but when you add everything together – timeshifting, plus iPlayer – [Doctor Who’s] ratings are the same as they ever were. But there is no capital in saying ‘Doctor Who’s ratings remain roughly the same’, so people make a story out of it.”

Doctor Who’s “legacy” will out-last Bake Off’s

Just under five million people watched the series nine opener starring Peter Capaldi according to overnight figures. The Great British Bake Off 2015 opener by contrast earned almost double that, and the final was watched by an average of 13.4 million.

But Gatiss warns against comparing the “temporary popularity” of shows like Bake Off and The X Factor with a show with a “proper legacy” such as Doctor Who.

“Those episodes of Bake Off or The X Factor, and their virtues are manifest, will never be watched again. Yet Doctor Who will be watched in 50 years’ time, 100 years’ time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I love things to be popular, I want things to be watched, but this sort of scrutiny is deadly.”

Is Doctor Who on too late?

Gatiss also echoes Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat’s concern that this series has been pushed back later and later, “cutting off your key audience, which is children.” Moffat himself told RadioTimes.com earlier this month that the later slot has had an impact on viewing figures.

“Unless [journalists] are gonna start reporting football matches in the middle, why are you reporting overnights?” Moffat said. “If you look at consolidated [ratings], we’re fine. We’re slightly down because we’re on a later slot, which I don’t think is the smartest move we’ve ever made. No one’s to blame for it but I don’t think 8:25pm is right for Doctor Who.

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Read the full interview with Mark Gatiss in the latest issue of Radio Times, available in shops and on the Apple Newsstand from Tuesday 10th November