There's More to the Doom and Gloom Around Doctor Who's New Year's Day Ratings

No matter how much you wave that sonic screwdriver about Doctor, those overnight figures aren’t going to change... yet.
Photo: BBC

Last night, Doctor Who returned for its sole outing in 2019 with “Resolution,” an all-in-all pretty cracking Dalek adventure. But you might instead have spent today reading about how it’s a disaster for the BBC, because overnight ratings are in, and they look pretty rough...but there’s more going on than certain headlines let on.

“Resolution” scored just 5.15 million overnight viewers in New Year’s Day ratings released today (via Doctor Who News), making it the fourth-watched program of the day in the UK behind the return of Luther and new episodes of the soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale.

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The numbers, however, seem to look very bad for Doctor Who when, say, the Hollywood Reporter starts contrasting them with the final ratings of past Doctor Who Christmas specials, painting a very morbid picture that’s no doubt already fueled a zillion algorithmically-pleasing YouTube videos about how that gosh-darned PC culture as ruined Doctor Who forever, or what have you.

The thing is, for those interested in getting a quick lesson on how UK TV ratings actually work, the numbers released today don’t actually tell the full picture of how many people have actually watched Doctor Who’s New Year’s Day special. There are actually, pretty confusingly, two different ratings numbers released for UK TV—overnights are an unofficial snapshot, usually available the day after broadcast, of who watched a program “live” as it broadcast. Then there’s consolidated final ratings, released a week later, that combine that number with the number of people who watched it on a delayed viewing, recorded the program after, or used a catch up video-on-demand service, and watched it at any point in that week-long period. More recently, those numbers have started to include the number of people who watch on different platforms, like mobile phones or computers. But regardless, consolidated final numbers are almost usually always a higher than overnights—sometimes by even a couple of million viewers.

As an example, here’s the overnight figures from the top 10 shows of Christmas Day 2018 in the UK (the original tweet), compared with the same top 10 based on final consolidated ratings figures released today (the quote tweet), courtesy of BBC reporter Lizo Mzimba:

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As you can see, there’s quite a bump in a lot of those numbers, accounting for people who were busy doing other things on Christmas—like eating copious amounts of food, or visiting family, or opening presents—then catching up with what was on TV afterward.

To use a more appropriate sample from 2017, Peter Capaldi’s swan song episode of Doctor Who, “Twice Upon a Time,” scored 5.7 million viewers in overnights, but that figure bumped up to a healthy 7.9 million viewers in final ratings. So all we really know is that Doctor Who’s overnight figures are slightly down from last year, but not in a particularly disastrous manner in context—but it still doesn’t actually mean much yet without the final ratings.

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It’s also not entirely a fair comparison to make, given that Christmas Day—which Doctor Who has enshrined itself in as a TV event since it returned in 2005—is usually a far more major day for TV ratings in the UK than New Year’s Day is. They offer similar opportunities for larger audiences, as they’re national holidays where people traditionally sit down and watch TV with each other, but Christmas is the jewel in the crown for the main TV networks in the UK in a way that New Year’s typically hasn’t been.

And even then, the past few years—with the rise of streaming services and other avenues for families to sit down and watch something while digesting their holiday excess have grown so much—that overnight ratings for the holidays have been on a slow, but steady downward trend over the past few years. Hell, you only need to look at how much stuff like Bird Box and Bandersnatch have dominated pop culture discourse over the last couple of weeks to see that audiences aren’t just relying on traditional TV for their holiday viewing fix.

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Time will tell if the BBC’s decision to shift Doctor Who from Christmas has actually paid off—it’ll be around this time next week when official final ratings for New Year’s Day come in. But until then, the Daleks haven’t quite exterminated Doctor Who’s viewing audience yet, regardless of what anyone tells you.


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James Whitbrook

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!