When Doctor Who triumphantly returned to BBC 1 in 2005, the first episode was broadcast on Easter Saturday and this strategy continued for a few years, debuting in March or April. However, the ratings for those seasons would gradually tail off towards the end of the 13 episodes, hopefully picking up again for the finale. Many media outlets are often quick to point to the raw numbers of the viewing figures or overnights but those totals do not tell the whole story. The show always performs strongly in terms of the percentages of people watching television at that time. This highlights the main issue that occurred with starting the series in late spring/early summer - the weather gradually improves and in Britain people want to make the most of that. As a result, there are less people at home with their television sets on. In this respect moving to the autumn/winter schedules appears to be a great idea, but is it?
The Saturday night schedules have always been an iconic location for channels to air their top entertainment programmes and today is no different. As a result Saturday night is a crowded marketplace. The autumn/winter schedules are highlighted by the ongoing battle between the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and ITV’s X Factor. These two television behemoths occasionally overlap but never go up against each other in direct competition. Instead, Doctor Who is often placed up against the X Factor, which has seen its ratings tumble in recent years. However, with a new judging panel, efforts are clearly being made to revitalise the show. More than likely, episodes of Doctor Who will be going up against The X Factor in order for the BBC to slot in ‘Casualty’ and their National Lottery programming. For instance, in 2014 the debut of the X Factor was scheduled against the last 15 minutes of ‘Into the Dalek’. Does Doctor Who deserve this tough timeslot or should it be broadcast when it does not face such stiff competition for viewers? After all, newspapers will inevitably make comment on the figures. But when we consider the rest of the year it is difficult to see any better slot for the show than the autumn/winter.
The autumn/winter is the perfect time of year to watch Doctor Who. We want kids to be watching with the night’s closing in, getting dark outside, all of which adds to the viewing experience. For example, it would be a very different experience to watch ‘Listen’ with blazing sunshine outside as opposed to the darkness of a twilight evening. Let us not forget that the show’s beginnings were set on a late November evening in 1963 - and that was pretty successful!
When you go to see a film in the cinema the lights are turned down to assist with the atmosphere and immersive experience. Television can’t quite match that but a show like Doctor Who can benefit from such immersion. This is largely out of the control of the production team and schedulers, with the viewers able to control their watching far more than in previous decades.
Gone are the days when a television programme would be shown once and that was your only opportunity to see it. Now, through on-demand services such as BBC iplayer, viewers can watch their favourite shows whenever they like. This has developed further recently because now viewing is no longer limited to a computer screen. Televisions can also connect to the internet, allowing families to gather around the television set at a time that suits them. As a result whenever there are debates about the viewing figures, statistics for how many requests the show gets on iplayer are quoted. Also the term ‘time shift’ has been invented to include people who record a programme and watch it within 7 days of broadcast. That process too has become simpler; no faffing around trying to find space on a video tape, just push a few buttons on your remote control and the whole series will be recorded for you to watch at your leisure. The reality is that the way people access television programming has changed irreversibly.
So perhaps it doesn’t really matter when Doctor Who is broadcast. But as fans I’m sure we can all agree, the sooner, the better!