Doctor Who Ratings Collapse: Is the Doctor Facing Extermination?

By James O Malley on at

Saturday night was not a good night for the England Rugby team, but nor was it a good night for Doctor Who over on BBC One. Viewing figures collected by ratings bureau BARB (and as reported by Digital Spy) suggest that just 3.71m people watched "The Witch's Familiar" as it was broadcast at 7:45pm.

This is the first time the show has dropped below the 4m mark, and follows the weak debut of Peter Capaldi's second series as The Doctor, which opened last week with 4.58m viewers. Whilst the fall can perhaps partially be explained by the BBC schedulers putting the show up against a major sporting event, it doesn't explain why Strictly Come Dancing, which was on beforehand, managed to get 7.68m viewers against the exact same Rugby match - suggesting that four million people changed channels between the two shows.

And as you might imagine - this has got a lot of people wondering: How bad is this, and could this tempt the BBC to cancel Doctor Who? How much should we read into these bad results? Are they numbers just a load of timey-whimey nonsense?

Why is this happening?

Essentially, if you look at the historical statistics for the show's overnight viewing figures, the trend is downwards. Way back in 2005 when Russell T Davies Christopher Eccleston revived the show it averaged 7.3m overnight viewers across 13 episodes (all of these figures are taken from uber-Doctor Who nerd forum Gallifrey Base). This kept up during David Tennant's tenure, only falling to around 7m across all 13 episodes. By the end of Matt Smith's time in the TARDIS this fell to 5.7m, and then during Peter Capaldi's first series it was only 5.5m. If the new, scarily low figures keep up, the current series looks set to be the worst yet. Far from not blinking, it seems that millions of people were only too happy to look away and risk the consequences.

Overnight ratings:
7.3m¤- Series 1: Overnight average (13 episodes)
7.2m¤- Series 2: Overnight average (13 episodes)
7.0m¤- Series 3: Overnight average (13 episodes)
7.2m¤- Series 4: Overnight average (13 episodes)
6.0m¤- Series 5: Overnight average (13 episodes)
5.7m¤- Series 6: Overnight average (13 episodes)
5.5m - Series 7: Overnight average (13 episodes)

Of course, this isn't quite the full story, as in the modern age it isn't just 'live' viewing that counts, but timeshifting and iPlayer viewers too.

+ 0.64m¤- Series 1 (2005)¤
+ 0.51m¤- Series 2 (2006)
+ 0.55m¤- Series 3 (2007)
+ 0.85m¤- Series 4 (2008)
+ 1.30m - Specials (2008/09/10)
+ 1.73m¤- Series 5 (2010)
+ 1.79m¤- Series 6 (2011)
+ 1.90m - Series 7 (2012/13)¤

The number of people using a DVR to timeshift the show has steadily increased over the last ten years - going from an average of 0.64m in 2005 to 1.9m with the last series. When BARB took timeshifting into account the ratings appear much healthier: Going from 7.94m in 2005, to 7.44m in 2014. Phew.

BARB Final Figures:
7.94m¤- Series 1: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.71m¤- Series 2: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.55m¤- Series 3: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
8.05m¤- Series 4: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.73m¤- Series 5: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.52m¤- Series 6: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)
7.44m¤- Series 7: Final BARB rating average (13 episodes)

iPlayer usage too has increased hugely, in line with the increased number of connected devices that now sit beneath our televisions. In 2005 the iPlayer accounted for just 0.51m extra viewers per episode - and by last series this was up to 1.88m.

So looking at the figures at least, it appears that there isn't any immediate need to worry - though obviously it will be a while until all of the final figures for the current series are known.

So the good news is that whilst the headline figures might be bad, the show also has a lot going for it. And there are other factors, to take into account too. For a start, Doctor Who has also been hugely successful for the BBC internationally, particularly in America - which gives the corporation and its BBC Worldwide subsidiary extra reach into the deep pockets across the Atlantic. Being a scripted drama too, Doctor Who almost certainly has more "long tail" value than, say, the likes of Strictly Come Dancing. Whilst the latter has won more viewers at home and the BBC has been able to sell the format around the world (albeit renamed as Dancing with the Stars), it isn't the sort of the show that people will sit down to watch in a boxset or on Netflix - meaning that the Doctor should continue earning for the BBC long after he has hung up his sonic screwdriver (or should that be sunglasses) and regenerated into the sunset.

So should fans be worried about the imminent extermination of The Doctor? We don't think so just yet.