Why so many Saturday Night entertainment shows fail

Former Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke shines light on the dark art of sculpting a ratings hit

BBC, TL

For more than 50 years, Saturday night has always been where the big ratings battle between BBC1 and ITV has played out.

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Even now, in the age of multiple channels, Netflix and BBC iPlayer, winning Saturday nights, particularly for the BBC, is a bit like winning Christmas: it demonstrates that the BBC takes seriously the entertain bit of its remit to “inform, educate and entertain”.

Early evening on a Saturday is one of the few slots where you can still get the whole family viewing the same programme together. The problem for both BBC1 and ITV is that getting a new show to work in such a competitive slot is incredibly difficult, which means Saturday nights are mainly filled by old favourites like Casualty, Strictly and The X Factor, and new shows are usually doomed to failure.

One of the great myths propagated by people who observe television from the outside is that getting ratings is easy. As such, the more pompous amongst them – usually politicians – see their role as stopping broadcasters going further downmarket in their search for ratings.

If only it was that easy. If you look back to Saturday nights over the decades, only a few entertainment shows have taken off and then stayed. A limited number spring to mind, like Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game, Blind Date, Beadle’s About, a couple of Noel Edmonds’s shows, Jim’ll Fix it (but no one mentions that any more), Britain’s Got Talent plus of course Strictly and The X Factor.

What’s really interesting is that it’s hard to come up with a programme that was created in the last decade, with the possible exception of The Voice UK, which has been a moderate hit on both BBC1 and ITV.

We have been here before. When Blind Date began to hit the buffers, a lot of people thought that was the end of Saturday night entertainment on the main channels. They were wrong.

The two big players that replaced Cilla Black’s dating show were Strictly and The X Factor and suddenly Saturday night entertainment was booming again. Although its rating are in decline, The X Factor is still valuable to ITV because it attracts a young audience, while Strictly attracts the rest.

The question is what happens when they disappear, as all entertainment shows eventually do?

In the end the format and the hosts get boring and the audience gradually stops watching. TV controllers all want a new format involving new talent, but so far, nothing has emerged that doesn’t look like one of the shows it’s replacing.

For producers the financial rewards for creating the next big show are enormous. The BBC has made millions from Strictly and has produced it in many countries around the world.

I was at the BBC when Strictly was first commissioned and I remember being asked what I thought. My reaction was that the show would either be a big hit or a dismal failure, but I wasn’t sure which.

I also remember seeing Blind Date for the first time when I worked for ITV. It was obvious it was going to be a big show, but often success comes as a surprise.

The reality is a high proportion of new shows fail. All a channel controller can do is rely on his or her instinct, the track record of the producer… and hope.

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By Greg Dyke, former chief executive of LWT and director-general of the BBC