Friday, 2 October 2009

Data Week: BBC Four, 2002-2009

Data Week returns!

[Quick aside: If you’ve just popped along here due to TV Cream Times’ mention of our Charlie Brooker scangasm, it’s on the other side of this huge update. In case you don’t fancy wearing out your mouse’s scroll wheel getting past the subsequent graphs, here’s a link. You’ll be missing out on some top-notch barcharts, though. Meanwhile, a polite nod in the direction of TVC’s Steve W: Cheers, Steve. ANYWAY.]

In a series of moves that can justifiably be labelled “worrying”, we’ve taken weekly top ten viewing figures from every week that BBC Four has been on air. That makes for a total of 3,900 programmes over 390 weeks. What does this mean? Well, that we probably belong in some kind of institute, and we don’t mean as one of the scientists. But also that we’re able to reveal the following rundown of the most viewed programmes shown thus far on BBC Four. But first, a shot of the BBC Executive Committee from 2002, looking uneasy on and around a sofa.


Rank Show Viewers (000s)
1 The Curse Of Steptoe (w/e 23/03/08) 1,625
2 Ian Hislop Goes Off The Rails (w/e 19/10/08) 1,426
3 Fanny Hill (w/e 28/10/07) 1,175
4 Fanny Hill (w/e 04/11/07) 1,174
5 Margaret Thatcher - The Long Walk To Finchley (w/e 15/06/08) 1,019
6 Hughie Green, Most Sincerely (w/e 06/04/08) 895
7 The Alan Clark Diaries (w/e 18/01/04) 890
8 Getting On (w/e 26/07/09) 861
9 Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (w/e 19/03/06) 860
10 Film: Anne Frank Remembered (w/e 25/01/09) 839
11 Life On Mars (w/e 25/02/07) 831
12 Railway Walks (w/e 26/10/08) 814
13 Blackadder Back And Forth (w/e 19/08/07) 800
14 Life On Mars (w/e 18/02/07) 793
15 Steptoe And Son (w/e 23/03/08) 776
16 QI (w/e 25/11/07) 770
17 Miss Marie Lloyd - Queen Of The Music Hall (w/e 13/05/07) 759
18 Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen (w/e 09/08/09) 740
19 QI (w/e 11/11/07) 738
20 Hancock And Joan (w/e 30/03/08) 709
21 QI (w/e 14/10/07) 702
22 Steam Days (w/e 26/10/08) 699
23 Railway Walks (w/e 19/10/08) 699
24 The Pink Floyd Story: Which One's Pink? (w/e 25/05/08) 693
25 QI (w/e 07/10/07) 679
26 QI (w/e 12/11/06) 676
27 The Thirties In Colour (w/e 20/07/08) 672
28 Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me (w/e 13/04/08) 669
29 Inside The Medieval Mind (w/e 20/04/08) 669
30 QI (w/e 19/11/06) 669
31 Stephen Fry And The Gutenberg Press (w/e 20/04/08) 664
32 The Alan Clark Diaries (w/e 25/01/04) 660
33 QI (w/e 30/09/07) 658
34 Stephen Fry: 50 Not Out (w/e 19/08/07) 652
35 Timeshift: Between The Lines: Railways (w/e 26/10/08) 644
36 Comedy Songs: The Pop Years (w/e 03/05/09) 641
37 QI (w/e 09/12/07) 638
38 Who Killed The Honey Bee? (w/e 08/03/09) 630
39 QI (w/e 18/11/07) 628
40 Britain's Best Drives (w/e 01/02/09) 625
41 Film: Calendar Girls (w/e 15/03/09) 620
42 QI (w/e 28/10/07) 613
43 Caravans: A British Love Affair (w/e 15/03/09) 611
44 The Thirties In Colour (w/e 10/08/08) 609
45 Life On Mars (w/e 10/02/08) 608
46 QI (w/e 16/12/07) 608
47 QI (w/e 23/09/07) 602
48 QI (w/e 10/12/06) 602
49 Legends: Roy Orbison (w/e 28/12/08) 601
50 Great Railway Journeys (w/e 19/10/08) 601
51 Glastonbury Live (w/e 10/05/09) 599
52 QI (w/e 05/11/06) 599
53 Britain's Best Drives (w/e 22/03/09) 593
54 The Story Of Maths (w/e 26/10/08) 584
55 Britain's Best Drives (w/e 11/01/09) 580
56 The Frost Report Is Back! (w/e 30/03/08) 580
57 A For Andromeda (w/e 02/04/06) 580
58 Liz Smith's Summer Cruise (w/e 26/07/09) 576
59 Timeshift: The Last Days Of Steam (w/e 05/10/08) 576
60 Life On Mars (w/e 17/08/08) 576
61 QI (w/e 26/11/06) 575
62 QI (w/e 29/10/06) 575
63 QI (w/e 02/12/07) 565
64 Roy Sings Orbison (w/e 28/12/08) 564
65 Fanny Hill (w/e 04/11/07) 564
66 The Big Bang Machine (w/e 07/09/08) 563
67 Pop Britannia (w/e 13/01/08) 563
68 QI (w/e 13/11/05) 562
69 State Of Play (w/e 01/06/03) 560
70 Christina - A Medieval Life (w/e 11/05/08) 559
71 D-Day To Berlin: Newsnight Special (w/e 21/06/09) 556
72 QI (w/e 21/10/07) 556
73 QI (w/e 17/12/06) 556
74 QI (w/e 04/11/07) 555
75 Bombay Railway (w/e 22/07/07) 555
76 Caravans: A British Love Affair (w/e 15/03/09) 553
77 Rain (w/e 01/03/09) 552
78 Johnny Cash: The Last Great American (w/e 01/06/08) 551
79 Crooked House (w/e 09/11/08) 550
80 QI (w/e 15/10/06) 550
81 D Day: Turning The Tide (w/e 21/06/09) 547
82 A Bit Of Fry & Laurie (w/e 19/08/07) 547
83 Edwardian Supersize Me (w/e 22/04/07) 547
84 The Chatterley Affair (w/e 26/03/06) 546
85 The Young Ones (w/e 19/08/07) 541
86 Life On Mars (w/e 15/04/07) 541
87 State Of Play (w/e 08/06/03) 540
88 Timewatch: The Last Day Of World War O (w/e 30/11/08) 538
89 Wainwright Walks (w/e 19/08/07) 535
90 Flight Of The Conchords (w/e 31/05/09) 533
91 Secret Life Of The Airport (w/e 03/05/09) 533
92 The 1950s: Pop On Trial (w/e 13/01/08) 531
93 Fear Of Fanny (w/e 29/10/06) 530
94 The Quartermass Experiment (w/e 03/04/05) 530
95 The Thirties In Colour (w/e 06/09/09) 525
96 Film: The Buddy Holly Story (w/e 22/02/09) 524
97 Film: The Name Of The Rose (w/e 20/04/08) 522
98 QI (w/e 02/10/05) 519
99 The Secret Life Of The Motorway (w/e 26/08/07) 517
100 Ford's Dagenham Dream (w/e 22/03/09) 515


So, over the course of its lifetime, there have been as few as five broadcasts attracting over a million viewers. That’s in no way a bad thing given the channel’s remit, of course. It’s not the BBC’s fault that while 30,000 people were watching “John Logie Baird: The Man Who Saw The Future” on 24th January 2003, 6,930,000 more people were using Baird’s invention to watch Footballer’s Wives on ITV instead.

That said, it is quite a surprise that when BBC Four were screening first-run episodes of popular programmes like QI or Life On Mars, they still didn’t reach the psychologically important seven-figure mark. The most popular BBC Four showing of Life On Mars (series two, episode three) attracted 831,000 viewers, with 5,230,000 more preferring instead to catch the show the following week on BBC One. Maybe this is why the experiment was halted after a few weeks, after which BBC Four used the slot to show repeats from earlier in the series instead. To be fair, QI did fare better – the most popular BBC Four screening of the show enticed 770,000 people over to the BBC Four digital thinkspace. That was about a third of the audience the same episode received on BBC Two seven days later. All things considered, the suitably cerebral QI is easily the most frequent visitor to the Top 100 most-viewed BBC Four broadcasts:


Ah, BBC Four. The only place where such a chart could contain programmes about caravans and railways. Don’t ever change, you (not that we’d watch either, but still). We’ve discounted all the shows only appearing once on that list, as there are fifty-five of them. Such is the way of BBC Four.

So, what of the more well-known BBC Four original offerings? How do they fare? A frankly borderline-autistic analysis of figures are coming right up.


Well, in keeping with our other running theme of the week, you’ll notice the various ‘Wipes of Charlie Brooker don’t make the hundred, but you might be surprised to discover that they aren’t even close to it. Despite the fact that just about everyone on Twitter (everyone that we’re following, anyway) and the ‘Web in general (the parts of it we look at, anyway) watches Screen- and Newswipe, the public at large aren’t so keen. The most popular outing for the former Oink! cartoonist was this February’s Newswipe debut, watched by 320,000 viewers. That makes it just the 488th most watched show in BBC Four’s history. According to @charltonbrooker himself on Twitter, this week’s Gameswipe was watched by more viewers than any of his previous shows, but until the official figures for that are in, here’s a chart. We can only assume episodes four and five of Newswipe just slipped out of the weekly tens – possibly fair enough in the case of episode five, as it was a compilation of the series up to that point.



On to Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political satire The Thick Of It. Now, given the show was considered popular enough to warrant a spin-off film, you’d expect it to have been one of BBC Four’s more popular programmes, wouldn’t you? After all, there’s no motion picture of Never Mind The Full Stops in the works, is there? Well, slightly surprisingly, you’d be wrong again (about The Thick Of It being popular, that is. As far as we know, Never Mind The Full Stops: The Motion Picture is not forthcoming). The most popular BBC Four screening of the show – each episode of which was premiered on the channel – was the series opener, watched by 319,000 viewers. That puts it in 495th place on our overall list, and leads to the following chart:


Even the two opposition specials (Rise Of The Nutters, and Spinners And Losers) hovered around the quarter-million mark. On the same week that a meagre 164,000 people watched episode 3 of The Thick Of It, 4.9 million people watched Celebrity Love Island. Not sneering, just putting the numbers out there.


That’s “Flight of the Conchords”, in case you can’t make out the title screen. Not an actual BBC Four production, but probably their most heavily promoted imported comedy. At it’s peak, the show proved more popular than just about any of BBC Four’s homegrown comedy shows, with the series two opener attracting 533,000 viewers on first broadcast, making it the most watched BBC Four programme of that week, and 90th most viewed overall. Not everyone stayed around for the remainder of the series, but that’s their stupid Little Britain-preferring loss. Let’s take a look at the chart, shall we? (nb. imagine us saying that last bit in the voice of Murray.)



One of the best things about BBC Four is the practice of full repeat runs for shows that would be considered too esoteric for BBCs One and Two, who are too busy trying to impress the 18-34 demographic. Only we’re still (just about) in that demographic grouping, and frankly, well, enough with the repeats of Have I Got Old News For You and Mock The Week – show us something that hasn’t been on Dave every night for months, you gits.

Anyway: I, Claudius (or if you’re a twat, “Aye, Clavdivs”). The 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’ book, which starred Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart and John Hurt, amongst others, and which proved rather popular on BBC Four, all things considered. Of the repeat run in 2006, seven episodes were in the three most-watched shows on BBC Four in their broadcast weeks, and unless unwilling classes of GCSE English Literature classes are now BARB diarists, that’s very impressive. Here’s a graphical representation of just how well it fared:



The main thing that compels us to make weekly trawls of the EPG for BBC Four is the promise of engrossing documentaries on what some would consider “the mundane”. One such example is The Secret Life Of The Motorway, which went into such enthralling detail the programme makers even interviewed the people who’d designed the typeface on motorway road signs. THE TYPEFACE ON MOTORWAY ROAD SIGNS. Frankly, we’re now in love with whoever thought that was a good idea.

We’re not alone in enjoying such fare, with the series opener sneaking into the all-time list of BBC Four’s hundred most-popular broadcasts (in 99th place, with an audience of 517,000), Even a repeat run of the series from earlier this year saw it attracting up to 379,000 eager petrolheads.



BBC Four also plays host to foreign language drama, such as the gritty yet compelling subtitled antics of Sweden’s Kurt Wallander. Despite what you may expect to be a reaction of “Do wot? If I wanted to read, I’d fackin’ flick through the bits of me Daily Star that aren’t tits, innit?”, these are really quite popular. Of the ten showings for Wallander in our list, half of them were the most watched BBC Four shows of their respective weeks. All the more reason for BBC Four to show Newstopia’s fantastic entirely-subtitled-from-Russian final episode. After showing the previous twenty-nine Newstopia episodes first, of course. COME ON BBC FOUR! (Reader’s voice: “Bleeding hell, change the sodding record.”)


Enough with the show-by-show breakdowns, how about our now-traditional PIE CHART DETAILING ALL SHOWS BY GENRE?

Yeah, right. Of the 3,900 broadcasts on the overall list, there are 1,675 different programmes. We’re not sifting through that lot until the Director General offers to wash our dishes for a month. Or at the very least, unless the BBC Executive Committee from 2002 offers to play musical chairs with a single tiny armchair for our edification…


Nice try, we’re still not doing it. Instead, here are some bonus facts:

  • The earliest broadcast from that top 100 was June 2003’s Simm-Morrissey political drama State Of Play, at numbers 69 and 87 (and between 540,000 and 560,000 viewers).
  • Repeats of Monty Python’s Flying Circus have featured on the list three times: twice in 2004, and once in 2005. For the weeks in question, they were the 1st, 2nd and 4th most watched shows on BBC Four. So come on BBC Four, how about a full repeat run? Or even better, Rutland Weekend Television? Come on, don’t wait until Eric Idle’s 70th birthday, do it now.
  • Meanwhile, repeat showings of Ripping Yarns have made BBC Four’s weekly top three on seven occasions.
  • Similarly, in 2002 a repeat showing of Not Only… But Also… was the most-watched programme of the week. And yet, no other repeats since. Tsk.
  • Despite being refreshingly novel and mostly enjoyable, Robert Newman’s History Of The World Backwards didn’t make the top ten shows for any of the weeks it was broadcast in. Boo.
  • From the entire listing, the twenty programmes that appear most frequently are as follows:

    1. QI (79)
    2. The Avengers (70)
    =3. Sounds Of The Sixties (46)
    =3. Yes, Minister (46)
    5. Life On Mars (45)
    6. Days That Shook The World (29)
    7. Timeshift (26)
    =8. BBC Four News (24)
    =8. Mind Games (24)
    10. Storyville (23)
    =11. The National Trust (21)
    =11. Wainwright Walks (21)
    =11. Weather (21)*
    =14. Inside Antiques (20)
    =14. Planet Earth (20)
    16. Himalaya With Michael Palin (19)
    =17. The Mark Steel Lectures (18)**
    =17. The Great War (18)
    =19. First Night Of The Proms (17)
    =19. Sounds Of The Seventies (17)
    =19. Restoration Secrets (17)

  • (* A documentary on weather, and not the actual weather forecast, of course.)

  • (** Exciting local colour alert: Thrillingly, BrokenTV’s Mark X was once asked on the NotBBC forum – where he occasionally posts under the wacky pseudonym “Mark” as he clearly has no imagination – whether he really was TV’s Mark Steel. Slightly less exciting follow-up: He isn’t.)

    To round things off, say you took the top tens from each week that BBC Four has been on the air. From each week, you took the viewing figures from those top tens, and calculated the average viewing figure. Then, you sorted these averages by date, and plotted the whole lot into a line chart. Why, surely such a chart would incontrovertibly prove how the popularity of BBC Four has grown – or otherwise– over the last seven and a half years? But who would be so anally retentive to compile such a chart? And for the love of all that is good and holy, should such people really be allowed to wander the streets? Really? Bloody hell.


There you go. No need to thank us.



The BrokenTV team will be out of a day job at the end of this month (voluntarily, so don’t feel you need to send in tinned food or anything). If anyone is actually looking for a walking, breathing man-child capable of putting together charts like the above, feel free to get in touch.


3 .:

Owen Allaway said...

I cannot begin to imagine how much work that took, but it was very interesting, so thank you. Odd how few viewers there are for shows that everyone I know loves and which I consider popular. Are iPlayer viewings counted in the figures?

Anyway, BBC4 is probably the only channel left in the whole world making proper documentaries. Did you see the History of Surgery show? That deserves to be remembered as one of the great documentary series, but seems to have slipped by mainly unnoticed.

In short, BBC4 = excellent.

Mark X said...

Thanks Owen. Once the initial click-drag-copy-pasting was over, it didn't take that long to compile the charts. As far as I'm aware, the BARB figures don't include iPlayer, but do include PVR'ed viewings (unlike the overnight figures you see more often nowadays).

One of the problems with BBC Four is that there are almost *too* many good documentaries. I missed the History Of Surgery, but will look out for a repeat showing. I'd actually misread it as "The History Of Sugary" at first, which would also be a great documentary. The history of sweets. Mmm.

Steve Williams said...

Thanks for the props, Mark. I'm not on Twitter, no - the average Creamguide billing would take about twenty tweets or so.

Anyway, this is fascinating, so hooray.

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