Why I’m a Celebrity, X Factor and Strictly are still kings of the entertainment jungle

Shows that were born in another age when huge audiences were the norm have managed to build on their success. But where are the new ideas, asks Ben Dowell?

Holly Willoughby and Declan Donnelly in I'ma Celebrity Get Me Out of Here

Is there a better example of the ‘show must go on’ spirit in British TV that the current series of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!?

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Ant McPartlin had his well-publicised troubles and the golden double act of British TV was under threat. A duo that in the national imagination went together (and this is no exaggeration) like fish and chips and bacon and eggs was temporarily split asunder.

But nothing was going to stop ITV carrying on with what is now the 18th series of the jungle caper. Declan Donnelly has now been temporarily partnered with This Morning mainstay Holly Willoughby and the show’s appeal appears undiminished. Sunday night’s I’m a Celebrity averaged 11m viewers – it’s biggest launch in five years and a sure sign of the resilience of the format.

But why are such well established shows like I’m A Celebrity still going so strong – and why aren’t more young pretenders emerging to knock them off the primetime throne?

The main reason: the more the market fragments – the more difficult it becomes to establish a new, fresh entertainment format.

This applies to most of the big beasts in the entertainment jungle – I’m a Celebrity and X Factor on ITV and Strictly Come Dancing on BBC1. These are shows that found their feet in an age when the main channels commanded bigger audiences. There were fewer channels, no multi-billion dollar-budgeted on-demand players like Netflix and Amazon taking eyeballs away, and less internet penetration.

They were also brought to life in an era of mass media journalism where big-hitting tabloids like The Sun and the Mirror held sway with much bigger circulations than they enjoy today. Newspapers and broadcasters cultivated mutually supportive relationships where blanket coverage guaranteed interest; even when there was a scandal or controversy it was front and centre. With a more fragmented news landscape today and the rise of the internet, it’s much harder for broadcasters to push their shows and their attendant agendas.

For an idea of just how different the scale was, it’s worth remembering that BBC1’s overall audience share in 1997 was 30.8% and ITV’s was 32.9%. This has steadily been whittled away and in 2017 stood at 21.8% for BBC1 and 15.5% for the main ITV channel, according to Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) data. They are still big and incredibly influential TV players, but with smaller market share comes a smaller chance of capturing the mass market imagination required to create an entertainment mega-hit.

I’m a Celebrity started life in 2002 and pulled in an audience of 10.95m for the series finale when (if you recall) Tony Blackburn became the first king of the jungle. But that was only ITV’s fourth most popular show of the week (the other three were editions of Coronation Street unsurprisingly) – an illustration of how huge audiences could be secured by ITV far more regularly than today.

The X Factor, which emerged from the trend towards talent shows like Popstars and Pop Idol, was similarly born in another age, in 2004, when its audience of 10m for the first finale was a base from which to grow. The opening episode of this latest series –  5.7 million – is quite a respectable audience for these times and the reason it is still part of the ITV portfolio.

And so too Strictly, the staple of BBC1 autumns and the glue that holds its weekends together with the Saturday night live shows and the Sunday night results. It also started life in 2004. Its audience has actually climbed steadily – series one averaged 6.45m and last year’s averaged 11.14m (including iPlayer catch-up). But it came into being when a new show could attract that kind of audience and traction and it has maintained it.

But will there be a new Strictly or X Factor? Not anytime soon if recent BBC entertainment flops like Prized Apart and Gary Barlow’s Let it Shine are anything to go by. If you talk to people at the top of TV, they will privately admit that the lack of new entertainment formats is something of a running sore.

In fact, the last big entertainment show to break through on the main channels was The Great British Bake Off, which launched on BBC2 in 2010 before moving to BBC1 in 2014.

And there’s one outlier on the ‘multi-channel’ scene, ITV2’s Love Island.

Love Island has won the day for the channel because it has finally proved that the elusive and much desired younger audiences are capable of being lured into watching scheduled TV. But its figures – 3.6m for the finale this year –are not enormous; it’s just they have just been the right kind of people from the 16-34 demographic, enabling ITV to target its advertising and reap financial return.

What was ITV’s biggest entertainment launch last year? A return of the 20 year old Who Wants to be a Millionaire with new presenter Jeremy Clarkson. It didn’t do too badly, pulling in a debut audience of 6m. But it was the revival of an old format – a global phenomenon – which first aired in 1998 and regularly pulled in audiences of 15m or more at its height (one episode in 1999 had 19m).

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Launching a new entertainment show is not impossible – but finding that traction and scale again? Well that is some ask and currently broadcasters haven’t been able to manage it. Increasingly, the giants of entertainment belong to another era.