Do lower ratings spell trouble for Doctor Who, or is the future still bright?

Jodie Whittaker’s latest series has recorded a decline in viewing figures, but fans shouldn't be worried about what's next for Jodie Whittaker's Doctor

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

The ratings for Doctor Who’s latest series are in, and for any Who fan they make for a slightly sobering read. Figures for the BBC sci-fi drama are down generally from the last series, and with 7-day figures now included the series finale The Timeless Children attracted 4.69m, down considerably from the 6.48m consolidated who watched 2018 finale The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos.

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In fact, while The Timeless Children’s 3.78 million overnight figures were higher than many other episodes in recent years the 4.69m seven-day rating is actually, surprisingly, the lowest 7-day viewing figure the series has had since Doctor Who was revived in 2005. For comparison, 2017’s The Doctor Falls had a 3.75 million overnight but a 5.6 million 7-day rating.

So what’s the story behind the lower ratings? And do they actually mean Doctor Who is in danger of being taken off TV anytime soon? Well, the truth is complicated.

It’s obviously undeniable that the ratings are down this series compared to Jodie Whittaker’s first adventures, which attracted a huge number of viewers. However, it is worth noting that these ratings were themselves a big step up from Peter Capaldi’s final series in 2017 (you can see the overnights for all four most recent series in the handy graph below, created by TVZone), and were bucking a general downward trend in recent Doctor Who.

It’s not like for like – Capaldi’s series 10 was in the spring on Saturdays, a tougher slot compared to Whittaker’s two winter series on a Sunday night – but if this latest series had come right after series 10, the ratings drop would be significantly less noticeable (and in fact, the overnights are generally healthier in the Whittaker era, possibly due to the move to Sunday nights).

Maybe, really, Whittaker’s first series was the blip – a big influx of people curious about the new casting of the Doctor – and now things are settling down again to about the level you’d expect for a 15-year-old reboot of a nearly 60-year-old TV show. The below chart created by George Sheard gives a helpful demonstration of this using averages.

It’s not as simple as saying that “clearly fans don’t like the show any more and have stopped watching it” – this has been a gradual decline since 2015 or earlier. And in a landscape when fewer young people than ever are watching BBC shows and audiences are being eaten up by big-budget sci-fi dramas on platforms like Netflix, Doctor Who was always going to struggle.

The glory days of David Tennant et al were in a different TV landscape, and if the Tenth Doctor touched down now it seems unlikely he’d command anything close to the ratings he did over a decade ago.

In fact, arguably, for Doctor Who’s latest series to be almost maintaining the ratings set three years ago isn’t a bad achievement considering what a drop there was between Capaldi’s 2015 and 2017 series (see above).

Then again, the fact that the consolidated ratings are dropping could be a concern, as it goes against the common defence we hear for lower TV ratings as a whole – specifically that more people watch on catch-up or on-demand, so overnights are an outdated measurement.

For Doctor Who the overnights are actually telling a slightly more positive story, which could be interpreted as uncertain viewers no longer being tempted after the fact. Alternatively, the fact that the show is on Sunday nights now could suggest that people are less likely to miss the show when it airs compared to when it was on Saturday nights, meaning overnights stay healthy even as viewers depart, with the shortfall more evident in catch-up.

But what does this all actually mean for Doctor Who? It’s not as simple as “the ratings are down so Doctor Who will be cancelled,” as for the publicly-funded BBC there’s an interesting question about exactly what ratings are for beyond bragging rights. Obviously they need to make TV that people want to watch – but which people?

Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh in Doctor Who (BBC)

At a recent event, BBC Drama boss Piers Wenger made the point that Doctor Who fulfils a need for family programming that is part of the BBC’s charter, and said they were far from wanting to rest the show.

“I worked on Doctor Who myself, I produced it for many years, and I can honestly say that I don’t think it’s been in better health, editorially,” he said at the time.

“I think it’s fantastic and I think that, the production values obviously have never been better.”

“It’s also not just funded by the BBC, it’s funded by lots of international partners, it’s an incredibly important show for younger audiences, still watched by families in a world where there are fewer and fewer shows that have the power to do that, so it will always be an important show for us and I think we’re a very long way from wanting to rest it.”

  • 6 Top BBC Dramas 2019: 16-34s (Out of the top 10 dramas across all channels)
  • Line of Duty (1.4m/39.0%)
  • Luther (1.4m/33.3%)
  • Peaky Blinders (1.2m/36.0%)
  • Doctor Who (1.1m/29.3%)
  • His Dark Materials (1.0m/32.0%)
  • Call the Midwife (0.9m/25.8%)

Notably, in terms of attracting 16-34-year-olds to BBC Drama Doctor Who was the fourth-most successful show, jumping ahead of series like Death in Paradise, Silent Witness and Call the Midwife despite their higher overall ratings. Different people are watching Doctor Who than are watching these shows, so why wouldn’t you want to keep this broad church?

More practically, as Wenger also pointed out, Doctor Who’s funding comes from other sources beyond the BBC alone – for example, the commercial arm BBC Studios – and compared to most other shows it has a dedicated fanbase keen to buy DVDs and merchandise and attend events.

From these avenues, Doctor Who as a show offers opportunities other BBC series with bigger ratings don’t. At time of writing, you can’t buy a DS Steve Arnott action figure, no matter how many millions tune into Line of Duty every week. Doctor Who fans are engaged in a way few other shows are, so it’s not as simple as saying there are fewer of them watching so the series should be canned.

These days, people like to say ratings don’t matter – and in a lot of ways they don’t. While some shows do still command big audiences for the most part our viewing is fragmented and split across multiple channels and platforms, while TV also competes for our attention with the attractions of the internet. The power of overnight ratings has diminished, and there are other ways to judge a show as a “success,” particularly on the non-advertising-based BBC.

With that said, though, ratings do tend to start to matter if a show is doing well in them – for example, in Jodie Whittaker’s first series, when the big leap in viewers was well-publicised by the BBC – and the bad PR of making a show that fewer and fewer people are watching is the flipside to that, even if you’re not losing money on the show itself.

But I don’t think this is the case for Doctor Who, and in my opinion it seems unlikely that this dip in ratings is anyway close to the end for the series. Maybe in a few years, if the trend continues, we’ll be having a different conversation – but for now Doctor Who is still in pretty good health, even if it’s not the top show on the BBC in terms of eyeballs onscreen. There’s at least one more series on the way, and I’d be very surprised if there weren’t more after that.

If nothing else, it’s hard to think of any sort of replacement that would still bring in millions of viewers, attract young audiences and create a whole world of commercial opportunities at a stroke. For a while yet, the Doctor seems safe from extermination.

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks comes to BBC One in late 2020/early 2021