PURE GOLDER Why Doctor Who’s Falling Overnight Ratings Are A Good Thing

And no, SFX’s online editor is not just indulging in a case of “you can prove anything with statistics”. He really means it…

The Daily Moan is at it again. “’DOCTOR WHO SCARES OFF ANOTHER 1 MILLION VIEWERS” screams the headline, reporting the overnight viewing figures for “Day Of The Moon”. The article continues: “As Doctor Who begins its latest series with disappointing viewing figures some fans are asking if the plotlines are too scary and too complicated for its largely family audience..”

Well, yeah, some fans are – it’s easy enough to find them on Gallifrey Base, and hardly incisive investigative journalism. And, if you have an anti-BBC bias like The Mail, it suits your agenda to quote them rather than the majority of fans who are calmly and sensibly pointing to the fact that the consolidated figures (those that include people who recorded the show and watched it later) for “The Impossible Astronaut” increased the final viewing for that episode from an overnight of 6.5 million to a final figure of 8.86 million. That’s pretty much in line with the final consolidated viewing figures for every series opener bar the phenomenon that was “Rose”. There’s no reason to assume that “Day Of The Moon” won’t undergo a similar hefty time shift.

And yet some fans are still getting their knickers in a twist about overnights, partially this is because they fear headlines like the ones in The Mail. There really is no need to panic. The dip in overnights is not only offset by the time shift figures – for fans, it’s actually a good thing. No, really. And I don’t even have to scrabble around using facts and figures in a kind of “you can prove anything with statistics” scenario.

Let me explain.

When Russell T Davies brought the show back, he made it unashamedly populist. This, at the time, was A GOOD THING. It may not have been the dark, gritty Doctor Who many fans wanted but it made the show a huge public phenomenon again. It put the show on the map. It secured its future. And it gave us five years of rollicking great adventures.

But there was always that niggle in the back of the mind of some fans. Could the show be a little darker? Could the show be a little more complex? Surely the viewers wouldn’t leave in droves if the fans got more of the kind of show they’d like?

Then along comes Moffat. After a transitional first series which seemed to be a bit of a mongrel between RTD era Who and his own vision for the show, his second series has kicked off in uncompromising style. “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day Of The Moon” are creepier, more complex and more grown up than New Who has ever been. Downright confusing some might say. But the audience appreciation index has shown that the general audience doesn’t seem to mind, while online fans have generally been giving the two-parter an ecstatic thumbs up.

And yet, the overnights are down. The sky is falling. Fans run around like headless chickens blaming everything from the weather to scheduling to robot hares.

Oh hang on. Wait a week. Add in the time-shifted figures and everything’s still rosy. Hurrah.

But that’s not the whole story. Think of this way.

Back in 2006, “The Girl In The Fireplace” got 7.4 million on overnights and a final consolidated figure of 7.9 million. That’s an increase of half a million on catch-up.

This week, “Day Of The Moon” got 5.4 million on overnights, and even the most conservative projections suggest it will get an extra 1.5 million viewers at least when the final figures come out. Let’s round that up slightly and say the final figure could be around 7 million. That’s not even factoring in that it could get easily half a million more on iPlayer (which didn’t exist in 2006). The figures aren’t, then, that much different.

But the real, crucial, fundamental thing to note here is that around two million extra people (maybe a little less, hopefully significantly more) are consciously deciding to watch the show. They’re not just catching it because it’s on, or because it follows another popular show, or because there’s nothing better on the other side. They’re making a deliberate choice. They want to watch it. That is significant.

And it’s also an audience that Moffat is cleverly courting with his approach to the show.

Think about it. All those dangling plot threads and unanswered questions. This is a Doctor Who for the Lost generation. It’s a Doctor Who designed to be discussed, picked over and analysed on the net. This is a Doctor Who that lives and breathes between episodes, buoyed up by discussion on message boards and fan sites. This is a Doctor Who that can afford to be more cerebral and confusing and not worry about overnight viewing figures.

This is a Doctor Who securing its future, in a television landscape where drama is being edged out of the overnight charts by “live” events, soaps and sport. Increasingly, drama will live or die by how many will commit themselves to watch it. This is a Doctor Who that can afford to be more “adult” and “inclusive” and “complex” because it doesn’t have to chase huge overnight figures by appealing to Aunt Maud and moody cousin Chardonnay who may just happen to have the telly on and nothing better to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I adored the RTD era, possibly a lot more than many fans. I loved its immediacy, its vibrancy, its energy and its ability to appeal on a lot of levels. But I am also loving Moffat’s vision for the show, and applaud the guy for not just giving us more of the same, and ingeniously retooling the show for a new era of television. Okay, as you’ll know from my reviews, I do worry that the Lost approach of questions, questions, questions and precious few answers could backfire if the eventual answers aren’t satisfying enough, but I’m more willing to go along for the ride, and speculate with the rest of you. But for all my doubts, I have to take my hat off to Moffat for having the balls to go in this direction. He’s proving there’s more than one way to make Doctor Who, and seems to be making a success of it.

Of course, you could argue that all this is down to naturally changing viewing patterns, and that if RTD was still in charge, his episodes would be getting bigger overnights and just as big time shifts. Possibly, possibly not. That we will never know. But what this change does mean, irrefutably, is that Moffat can do the show his way, and not have to worry so much about overnights. In other words, he can create a new Doctor Who more in line with what many fans always wanted (if the overwhelmingly positive votes on both our forum and on Gallifrey Base are anything to go by). So rejoice. Falling overnight viewing figures mean you’re getting what you want, and with no worries about cancellation because the catch-up figures are so fantastic. It’s good news all round.

Then again, if the consolidated figures come in next week and the show’s ratings are only bumped by quarter of a million, then clearly I’m talking bobbins. But somehow (he quickly checks iPlayer again and notes that “Day Of The Moon” is still in the top five) I don’t think that will be the case. And besides, 5.4 million viewers for a drama these days is phenomenal anyay without taking any of these other factors into account.

Oh, and the Daily Mail? Didn’t that recently record its lowest circulation in 10 years?