Magazine article The Spectator

Top of the Pops

Magazine article The Spectator

Top of the Pops

Article excerpt

The most watched programme on British television this year was the special live edition of EastEnders, broadcast in February to mark the soap's 25th anniversary. This was the one - I assume you're keeping up - in which Bradley Branning plunged to his death and Stacey confessed that she had killed Archie. At the end, some 16.6 million people were watching, which is roughly 28 per cent of the population, still a fraction of the 50 per cent who watched the old Morecambe and Wise show on Christmas Day back in the 1970s.

But television is no longer the glue that binds us. The Americans call them 'watercooler moments', though in Britain the conversations would be in the canteen - over The Forsyte Saga or Hancock's Half Hour, or, of course, Coronation Street. Television provided endless common interest. But now we've all watched something different, a documentary on BBC4, a repeat of QI on Dave, pro-am racquetball on Sky Sports 3.

This is becoming a less sociable country:

pubs are closing by the score, and meanwhile we are all at home watching one of a hundred channels.

You'll be unsurprised to learn that the second most watched programme was England v. Germany in June, during the World Cup. That attracted 15.8 million viewers, nearly two and a half million more than watched Spain win the final. Clearly, the nation lost interest after our defeat. Few other sports events came anywhere near it, unless you count The X Factor, whose final results show topped 14.5 million.

What's remarkable when you look at the BARB viewing figures for the past year is how staid, how unchanging we are. After 26 years, EastEnders is almost invariably top of BBC1's chart. After 50 years, Coronation Street leads the ITV1 table, except when The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent is running. Both the major soaps hover between 9 and 11 million viewers per show. Given the amount of space devoted to them by the popular press, it's worth remembering that this is around 17 per cent of the population.

They are a minority taste.

What has changed is our obsession with competition. If you want a hit cookery show, it's not enough just to show people cooking.

(Though Heston Blumenthal is a huge success on Channel 4, often getting more than 3 million viewers, a jackpot in C4 terms, and proof that people who watch cookery programmes rarely make the dishes, since most of Blumenthal's require a small nuclear reactor, just for the gravy. …

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