Thanks to Top Gear, for the past two weeks dozens of people have joined me in being nerdy about television ratings – a basic measure of how many people are watching TV shows.
The reason for the new obsession is simple: Top Gear has a new line up and some journalists and petrolheads have strong views on this.
On Monday, Chris Evans said overnight viewing figures – traditionally the way audiences have been compared and judged – have “never been less relevant”.
He also suggested using those figures may mean you are living in the past.
Chris is not alone in these thoughts. His comments reminded me of a previous ratings argument, this time over The X Factor, when Simon Cowell urged TV bosses to find a new way to measure audiences.
At the time Cowell said the overnight figures and the system that produces them are “meaningless”.
Both these TV heavyweights have a point to a degree.
The way people watch TV is changing. Viewers watch TV live, recorded on their digital boxes or Sky+ and also in the BBC’s case on iPlayer.
So yes, overnight figures are not the be all and end all.
BUT, at the same time, a big drop from one week to the next, in Top Gear’s case losing a third of its overnight audience from 4.4 million to 2.8 million, cannot be viewed as irrelevant.
If nothing else, it shows many people were not bothered/excited enough to watch it live, which is no great thing for anyone two weeks into one of the BBC’s biggest shows.
It shows there is work to be done; Evans shouting less for starters would do everyone a favour.
Whatever anyone says, you want your overnight figures to be as big as possible. In Cowell’s case, ITV needs people watching live so they will watch the adverts too, which pay for their programmes. Top Gear is different to The X Factor; there are no adverts to worry about.
And the consolidated figures are now in and show episode one got 6.4m, up on last year’s launch. Throw in the 1.75m iPlayer viewers on top of that and the figure of 8.15m is very healthy.
As I write this, Top Gear episode two with Evans in the driving seat is number two in the iPlayer Top 40 as well, so talk of a complete crisis is a little premature.
However, the overnight ratings in America were also down, and if they are down everywhere around the world, that is bad news for the brand and future sales deals.
I agree with Evans that the overnights are less relevant than ever. That the ratings system is flawed and outdated. But for now, those numbers and the consolidated ones a week later, using very small sample sizes, are all we have to judge a show’s success.
BBC staff love the viewing figures when they show Bake Off is huge hit, so they have to accept they will also be used to suggest a show like Top Gear is negotiating a rocky road.
Mark Jefferies is Showbiz Editor at the Daily Mirror and co-edits their Square Eyes TV column