UK Viewers: What Do They Watch? Top Factual Programs, 2011 YTD

Brits and Americans are two peoples separated by lots more than a common language.

  • For a start, take the television viewing preferences of the world’s #1 and #2 English-speaking television markets.

A friend shared a recent a top level report on the ratings of UK Factual and Documentary programs broadcast this year through the end of July.

Here are the shows, with our Takeaways and Comments below:

Title 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 Moving On: The Walton Sextuplets ITV1 11.3 6499 Obs Doc Series
4 Strangeways ITV1 10.9 6267 Prison Doc Series
5 Countryfile BBC 1 10.3 5911 Magazine
6 The Duke At 90 BBC 1 9.5 5462 Bio
7 Richard Hammond’s Journey to the Centre BBC 1 9.4 5389 Science
8 My Big Fat Royal Gypsy Wedding CH4 9.3 5321 Obs Doc
9 Human Planet BBC 1 9.2 5284 Sci / Nat Hist
10 Prince Philip At 90 ITV1 8.9 5110 Bio
11 Atlantis BBC 1 8.9 5105 Docudrama
12 Long Lost Family ITV1 8.8 5027 Doc Series
13 The Corrie Years ITV1 8.6 4936 Popular History
14 Egypt’s Lost Cities BBC 1 8.6 4917 Archaeology
15 Terry Wogan’s Ireland BBC 1 8.3 4752 Travel
16 Four of A Kind ITV1 8.2 4715 Obs Doc Series
17 Embarrassing Bodies CH4 8.1 4618 Science Series
18 Children’s Hospital ITV1 7.9 4499 Obs Doc Series
19 The Biggest Loser ITV1 7.9 4492 Elimination
20 The Unforgettable … ITV1 7.7 4426 Bio Strand
21 Jimmy’s Food Factory BBC 1 7.7 4415 Lifestyle / Sci
22 Babies Behind Bars ITV1 7.6 4360 Obs Doc Series
23 Traffic Cops BBC 1 7.5 4306 Clip Show
24 Poms in Paradise ITV1 7.5 4292 Travel / Lifestyle
25 Inside the Human Body BBC 1 7.5 4271 Science Series
26 Kate in Canada ITV1 7.5 4280 Curr Affs Special
27 Strictly Kosher ITV1 7.4 4266 Obs Doc Series
28 The Dales ITV1 7.4 4226 Obs Doc Series
29 The Great British Weather BBC 1 7.4 4237 Science Series
30 The Lakes (Series 2) ITV1 7.3 4147 Travel Series
31 Britain’s Royal Weddings BBC 1 7.2 4105 History Specials
32 Famous, Rich + In the Slums w/Comic Relief BBC 1 7.2 4101 Travel / Doc
33 Madagascar BBC 2 7.1 4063 Travel / Nat Hist
34 The Betty Driver Story ITV1 7.1 4028 Popular History
35 Smugglers ITV1 6.9 3974 Investigation
36 William & Kate – In Their Words ITV1 6.9 3951 Curr Affs Special
37 Motorway Cops BBC 1 6.9 3950 Cop Doc Series
38 Secret Mediterranean w/ Trevor McDonald ITV1 6.9 3917 Travel
39 Wonders of the Universe BBC 2 6.8 3905 Science
40 One Born Every Minute CH4 6.8 3889 Obs Doc Series


  • The list is wonderfully eclectic!
  • The ratings are huge compared with U.S. audiences for comparable programs
    • 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
  • 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 even 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
  • Popular, edgy Science series like Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies still attract big UK audiences
  • It was a royal wedding year, so it’s not surprising to see William & Kate join wedding-themed programs, like the irresistible Gypsy Weddings, amongst the top performers
    • Prince Philip’s big, old grumpy 90th birthday interviews earned a couple of extra top slots for the Royal category
  • The list is very British
    • Exceptions that we noticed are: # 1 The Apprentice is a U.S. format; and #22 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.
  • Travel remains a top performing Factual category, although there is no current long-running breakout travel hit like Wish You Were Here
  • 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

BTW, the top-rated program on all UK television was the BBC’s 5.5 hour Royal Wedding telecast, which earned 13.6 million average viewers, a 24 Rating and 63! Share.

Apologies to our UK readers if this is all old hat.  It’s refreshing stuff to readers located in most of the rest of the world.


From a “Preferred Producer”

The interesting thing about Gypsy Wedding like Swamp People is that it speaks to a global fascination with “internal” and “within our borders” subcultures.  The foreigner within, the enemy within, the stranger within.  Same with Hoarders and crime stuff like “the murderer next door.” Personally I think the quickly changing world has made everyone question their core values and roots.  They are wondering who they are and what they share with people and ideas they formerly thought were “outsiders.”  They are realizing they are them, we are them, same with all the Zombie stuff as well.  It’s interesting!

And a “Preferred U.S. Programming Executive”

Peter, this is interesting. It would be even more so if we knew the top-rated programs among the advertisers’ target audiences, adults 18-49 or 25-54, or whatever the analogous British target is. you might see a very different list.