If you pay any attention to television ratings - I do - you'll know that the recent Wimbledon final was viewed by a peak of 17 million people in the UK. A couple of weeks before, England's exit from Euro 2012 interested over 23 million viewers, and generated the largest figures since last year's Royal Wedding. These are huge audiences, but ones that are not achieved often in today's televisual landscape. These are exceptional events, it seems, as television viewing figures are falling year-on-year.
Don't ask my why, but the evening soaps have long been the most viewed programmes in the UK. Coronation Street and Eastenders still dominate their primetime slots, and are often the highest rated shows on any given night. Although the soaps are still massively popular, their current viewership is down significantly from the 'glory days' of the 1980s and 90s. For example, recent episodes of Coronation Street are seen by an average of 7 million people. Ten years ago, at the beginning of the 2000s, the soap was viewed by an average of 15 million. It's not just the soaps either. Prime time audiences are down across the board, with most programmes failing to reach over 6 million viewers, an audience that would be considered tiny in years gone by. So, what's happened? Why have audience numbers fell so sharply?
Part of this decline in viewership can be explained by recent technological innovations. The introduction of Sky + and other DVR equipment after the millennium gave us the opportunity to record our favourite shows and watch them at our convenience. More recently, video on demand (VOD) services like BBC's iPlayer and Sky's Anytime allow us to watch television shows without a TV; on our computers and games consoles. The iPlayer in particular has been met with huge success. In the month of December 2011, over 7 million radio and television programmes were watched over various different platforms. These include the BBC website, mobile apps and internet televisions. According to the BBC's Media Centre, this represents a year-on-year increase of over 1000%. As television viewing is decreasing, the use of these services is increasing. So, it's not that people aren't watching television anymore, it's that people aren't watching television on television anymore.
I'm torn on this issue. On one hand, the evolution of television has given us more control over our viewing. We are no longer bound by schedules, and can slot our viewing into our own routines. Advertisements can be skipped, and programmes can be watched from any location. In many ways, we each run our own television station. On the other hand, these changes in the way we view television could lead to the downfall of the medium altogether. If we continue control when we watch TV, and pick and choose programmes at our convenience, then many networks may not survive. Television revenue is largely made through advertising, and if nobody is watching the old fashioned way, then the networks are in danger. If they don't move with the times, then most channels will fade into obscurity.
Some people argue that the end of television is nigh. They say that less and less people will watch, until television ceases to exist. I don't buy into that argument. I look at these changes not as a death knell, but as an evolution. Ratings may be down, but the ubiquity of television-related services prove that the medium is stronger than ever. In fact, when I finish writing this, I'm going to watch a shitload of Mad Men on Sky Go.