Doctor Who ratings 2023 for the 60th anniversary specials are going to be apples/oranges

A rare actual blog post on this site these days. I’m sure I’ve written before that Doctor Who fandom is uniquely culturally scarred by the 1980s experience of hiatus and cancellation and being pitched against Coronation Street, and so obsesses about ratings like no other.

No doubt when the 60th anniversary specials air later this year there will be only two possible narratives on social media – either the overnights for the first special are higher than most of the Whittaker-era and therefore it is “triumphant return after the divisive wokeism of having a woman Doctor”, or they won’t be, in which case “not even RTD and David Tennant’s return can save this doomed franchise” etc etc.

The real answer, I suspect, is that TV ratings are no longer the measure of success for a drama, and they are never ever going to be scaling the heights of yesterday, because people simply don’t watch telly like that anymore in the UK. Or rather, an awful lot of people don’t watch telly like that anymore.

I was very struck with these two paragraphs in a recent piece by colleague Jim Waterson about Ofcom’s latest look at British viewing habits:

“The proportion of people watching any traditional TV broadcast in a given week has declined from 83% in 2021 to 79% in 2022, the sharpest fall on record, according to Ofcom’s latest Media Nations report. This figure is even lower among 16- to 24-year-olds, with just 54% of young people watching any live television.”


“Another notable shift in the broadcast TV landscape, according to Ofcom, is a steep decline in the number of programmes attracting ‘mass audiences’. The number of shows with more than 4 million TV viewers has more than halved in recent years, as fewer people tune in to watch evening TV news bulletins and the three most popular soaps: Coronation Street; EastEnders; and Emmerdale.”

The report concludes people in the UK “will tune in collectively for live broadcasts of international football matches, news events such as Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, and major entertainment shows such as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!”, but that isn’t drama about time and space that will be on iPlayer for later.

I suspect much of the commentary around the Doctor Who ratings later this year will be based around an outmoded understanding – among fans and detractors alike – of how mass audience television works in 2023.