Quick question, soap fans: which show will you be watching tonight – Emmerdale or EastEnders?
It used to be the case that we could have it all. A conflab in the Woolpack followed by a brawl in the Vic. But our allegiances are currently being tested because tonight – for the second time within seven days – the two will clash, as ITV airs an hour-long Emmerdale from 7pm, with EastEnders coming in half-way through at 7.30pm on BBC1.
Devotees of both programmes will yet again be forced to choose, with the inevitable result being that both ITV and BBC1 will take a ratings hit when the overnight figures are published tomorrow.
I know that there’s always Sky Plus or catch-up TV for those who want to see both, but the fact of the matter is that fans are getting more used to missing episodes. Surely the last thing the broadcasters want is for people to think that their big primetime soaps aren’t worth catching?
The clash last Thursday, for instance, saw both Emmerdale and EastEnders dip below the usual five million mark in the 30-minute overlap period.
When Emmerdale is shown across the traditional EastEnders slot, viewers end up feeling that all our soaps are disposable rather than appointment-to-view. For every fan that assiduously sets their PVR, you can bet that there are many more who just resign themselves to missing out.
Gillian Taylforth and Letitia Dean on BBC1's EastEnders
This increased butting of heads in soapland comes following recent comments made by ITV’s director of television Peter Fincham about the state of Saturday night telly.
Accusing the BBC of trying to “clip The X Factor’s wings” in its scheduling of Strictly Come Dancing, Fincham – speaking at a panel debate at the Edinburgh International Television Festival – said:
“Our audience tell us they don’t want those shows to overlap. They’re both enormously popular shows. Many, many viewers want to be able to watch one and then the other.”
But why should there be one rule for Saturday night TV and another for weeknight soaps? Has the landscape become so dog-eat-dog that dividing audiences has become compulsory? Because all that happened with those cracking Thursday episodes of EastEnders and Emmerdale was that neither were watched by as many people as they should have been.
OK, so this is a particularly crammed period for ITV as it juggles the soaps around in time for the start of the Rugby World Cup on Friday. But don’t expect the destructive timetabling to stop once the teams kick off.
Ryan Hawley and Kelvin Fletcher in ITV's Emmerdale
Next Friday (25th September), we’ll once again have to opt for either the high-profile shooting of Robert Sugden in Emmerdale at 8pm or shock developments at Max’s trial in EastEnders at exactly the same time.
Soap operas are one of the few unifying forces left on TV, their plot twists endlessly debated on social media, over the garden fence and in the workplace. Healthy soaps prove that TV is as relevant today as it ever was.
So when the wellbeing of our soaps is put in jeopardy thanks to competitive scheduling, we do a massive disservice to both programme makers and fans. This cynical trend must end and it must end now.
You can watch 60-second rundowns of next week's episodes of EastEnders and Emmerdale below.