A new report from Ofcom has revealed that the size of audiences watching broadcast TV is falling and that soaps are leading this slump. "Looking at these declines by programme genre, we can see that the decreasing popularity of soaps is driving the overall decline. In 2007, 508 episodes of soaps achieved an audience of at least 8 million; in 2017, this figure was 63," said the broadcasting regulator today.
Latest overnight figures reveal that - on Tuesday 17 July - the nation's soaps remain the most popular choice for viewers watching scheduled television, with EastEnders netting 3.31 million and Emmerdale interesting 3.56m (with the high definition broadcast adding 1.51m). But the figures are a far cry from the shows' heyday, with Ofcom having this to say about the fall-off in viewership:
"This is even clearer when we look at individual episodes that attracted audiences over 10 million; in 2007 there were 172, by 2015, the last year in which such audiences were achieved, there were only four.
"In 2007 EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale averaged 8.7 million viewers between them; by 2017 this was down by 1.8 million, to 6.9 million. Apart from 2010, when audiences increased to 8.7 million from 8.0 million the previous year, there has been a steady decline in audience volumes."
Entertainment formats such as The X Factor are also cited as having had an impact on the overall numbers for mass audience programmes: "In 2009 The X Factor had 17 episodes achieve an average audience of over 13 million and in 2010, 23 episodes. In 2017, however, not a single episode achieved more than 8 million."
Speaking back in 2014, Russell T Davies, who wrote the Coronation Street spin-off video Viva Las Vegas before going on to create the likes of Queer as Folk and Cucumber, voiced concern about the long-term future of the UK's soaps, saying in an interview with Attitude:
“I think the soaps are in trouble and need to be careful. You can see a television landscape in 10 years’ time where they won’t exist or will be reduced.”
Recent storylines on Coronation Street and Eastenders have earned acclaim, with Aidan Connor's suicide and Shakil Kazemi's funeral both singled out for praise.
But with the Ofcom report revealing that the number of UK subscriptions to television streaming services Netflix, Amazon and NOW TV having overtaken traditional pay television for the first time, questions will no doubt now be asked again about the long-term prognosis for our best-loved continuing dramas.