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Chernobyl hooked UK viewers more than any other drama, finds research

The Guardian logo The Guardian 26/10/2020 Jim Waterson Media editor
Jared Harris, Emily Watson standing next to a person in a suit and tie: Photograph: AP © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: AP

Chernobyl was the drama series that British viewers were most likely to watch to the end, according to research that attempts to work out exactly which television shows get viewers hooked and which simply benefit from first-episode hype.

Even though most people watching the drama about the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Ukraine probably had an idea of how the story ended, almost all of them watched to the very end of the critically lauded Sky Atlantic series.

Shows with substantial falls in their audience over a series – suggesting viewers were turned off by what they saw – included ITV’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, BBC One’s This Time with Alan Partridge, and George Clooney’s take on Catch-22 for Channel 4.

BBC Two’s adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose lost two-thirds of its viewers over the course of its run, potentially due to a script described by the Guardian’s reviewer as a “monk soup”, which “requires the patience of a saint to follow”.

Tom Harrington of Enders Analysis, who produced the research, said his work was an attempt to work out which programmes had staying power and which benefited from hype and promotion: “You can shove shows in people’s faces and get people to watch the first episode – but you can’t force people to watch the second episode.”

Related: The 50 best TV shows of 2019: No 3 – Chernobyl

In addition to Chernobyl, scripted programmes that attracted incredibly loyal audiences included blockbuster ratings winners such as the BBC One’s Bodyguard and ITV’s long-running Doc Martin. Other major successes that kept viewers watching to the end include BBC Three’s hit comedy This Country and more niche shows such as Sky Atlantic’s Italian crime series Gomorrah.

Although viewing habits are changing fast, putting a programme in a primetime slot on BBC One will still give it a major advantage in raw viewing figures over a programme broadcast on the less-watched Channel 5. This analysis, which looked at viewing figures for scripted programmes shown in the UK since 2018, attempted to strip away this promotional advantage and reveal which channels can commission dramas that attracts loyal viewers.

The research found that ITV was the leading channel for making programmes with loyal viewers, with more than 80% of viewers likely to watch to the end of every scripted show it commissions. This compares with around 60% of viewers watching to the end of a typical Channel 4 or Sky-commissioned series.

However, the league table lacks information on the performance of shows on leading streaming services, which refuse to release their viewing figures to be audited as they view such information as commercially sensitive. As a result it is near-impossible to tell whether the hype around shows on the likes of Netflix or Amazon Prime Video has actually translated into loyal viewers.

As a result many television commissioners at traditional channels complain the streaming companies can make disastrous punts on big-budget shows without having to face the embarrassment of a show becoming a ratings flop in a very public manner. Instead, the only sign that a Netflix show has lost its audience is likely to be when it is quietly cancelled at the end of a series.

Jared Harris, Emily Watson standing next to a person in a suit and tie: Jared Harris (standing) in Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl. The fact the series’ ending was not a surprise did not deter viewers. © Photograph: AP Jared Harris (standing) in Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl. The fact the series’ ending was not a surprise did not deter viewers.

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