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What Did Brits Watch in Huge Numbers? Factual FY’11 (#1-35)

2012 February 11
by Peter Hamilton

A friend shared a recent report on the average ratings of UK factual and documentary programs broadcast in 2011.

Here are the Top 1-35, with our Takeaways below.

  • The Takeaways are updated from our August post on the top programs for 1H’11.
  • Also, see our previous post for #36-70 for FY’11.
Title Channel TVR ‘000 Category
1 The Apprentice: The Final BBC 1 17.8 10239 Elimination
2 Big Fat Gypsy Weddings CH4 15.8 9050 Obs Doc Series
3 Frozen Planet BBC1 13.7 8665 Nat History
4 Big Fat Gypsy Christmas CH4 12.6 7246 Obs Doc Series
5 Moving On: The Walton Sextuplets ITV1 11.3 6499 Obs Doc Series
6 Susan Boyle … Superstar ITV1 11.3 6336 Bio
7 Strangeways ITV1 10.9 6267 Prison Doc Series
8 Countryfile BBC 1 10.3 5911 Magazine
9 9/11 Day That Changed … ITV1 10.5 6043 History / Curr Affs
10 Earthflight BBC1 10.0 5771 Nat History
11 Top Gear: India BBC2 10.0 5761 Lifestyle / Travel
12 Billy Connolly’s Route 66 ITV1 9.8 5652 Travel
13 The Duke At 90 BBC 1 9.5 5462 Bio
14 Richard Hammond’s Journey to the Centre BBC 1 9.4 5389 Science
15 Ocean Giants BBC1 9.3 5341 Nat History
16 My Big Fat Royal Gypsy Wedding CH4 9.3 5321 Obs Doc Series
17 Human Planet BBC 1 9.2 5284 Science
18 Super Tiny Animals ITV1 9.1 5247 Nat History
19 Prince Philip At 90 ITV1 8.9 5110 Bio
20 Long Lost Family ITV1 8.8 5027 Doc Series
21 Downton Abbey: Behind the Drama ITV1 8.6 4983 Arts / Pop Culture
22 Egyps Lost Cities BBC 1 8.6 4917 History
23 Harry’s Arctic Heroes BBC1 8.3 4752 Doc (2)
24 Farewell Liz ITV1 8.3 4736 Doc
25 Terry Wogan’s Ireland BBC 1 8.3 4752 Travel
26 Four of A Kind ITV1 8.2 4715 Obs Doc Series
27 Embarrassing Bodies CH4 8.1 4618 Science Series
28 Who Do You Think You Are? BBC1 8.0 4604 Popular History
29 Children’s Hospital ITV1 7.9 4499 Obs Doc Series
30 The Biggest Loser ITV1 7.9 4492 Elimination
31 The Corrie Years ITV1 7.7 4936 Popular History
32 The Unforgettable … ITV1 7.7 4426 Bio Strand
33 Jimmy’s Food Factory BBC 1 7.7 4415 Lifestyle / Science
34 Babies Behind Bars ITV1 7.6 4360 Obs Doc Series
35 Traffic Cops BBC 1 7.5 4306 Clip Show



  • The list is marvelously eclectic!
  • The ratings are huge compared with the U.S. where comparable programs are long gone from the broadcast network schedules.
    • There is a thriving UK appetite for quality docs of many genres and formats: observational, hosted, classic big Blue Chip, high end Lifestyle, Travel, and so on.
    • Strangeways stands out: it’s a classic, tough observational doc about the Manchester prison.
  • On the topic of Blue Chip:
    • The list includes a number big budget Science, Natural History, History and Archaeology series.
    • Many of these categories are close to extinct in the equivalent U.S. Top 50-100 lists.
    • Cable channels that once did well with them, like Discovery, History and Nat Geo have shifted away from Blue Chip films that are based on deep specialization in their subject matter, and towards character-driven Reality series
  • It was a royal wedding year, so it’s not surprising to see William & Kate joined amongst the top performers by wedding-themed programs like the irresistible Gypsy Weddings.
    • Prince Philip’s big, old grumpy 90th birthday interviews earned extra top slots for the Royal category
  • The list is very British
    • Exceptions that we noticed: # 1 The Apprentice is a U.S. format; and #34 Babies Behind Bars is a U.S. acquisition.
  • There is a lot of nostalgia: the royal stuff, countryside lifestyle magazines, pop culture anniversary specials (for Coronation Street) and so on
  • Hosted programs are strong performers, despite their often reported burial.
  • For all the chatter about them at recent doc conferences, we expected to see more top-rated ‘fixed rig’ shows inspired by Big Brother, like our favorite One Born Every Minute
The Knock
  • For all the chatter about the unique inventiveness of the British TV industry, there are no breakthroughs here.
  • Has the fabled UK format engine run out of petrol? Or Malt? Or whatever else it has run on?

Apologies to our UK readers if this is all old hat. And a bit of a repeat from August.

  • It’s very challenging stuff to readers who work in the factual sector in most of the rest of the world.

 Screen Tasmania
Factual Entertainment Seminar
Hobart, 5-6 March

  • Asia Side of the Doc, Tokyo, 17-21 March
  • And attending: MIPDOC






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