UK Documentary Ratings: The Top 100 for 2019. Takeaways on Natural History, True Crime and Brexit

It’s always a pleasure to share the UK’s highest-rated documentary and unscripted programs for the past year.

My ratings snapshot for 2019 is comprised of:

  • The Top 50 in the combined Documentary and Lifestyle / Hobbies category.
  • My Takeaways.
  • Then #51-100.
  • I concluded with the Top 25 Current Affairs programs because there is some overlap with the Documentary category.

Will UK Matter Less?

  • The UK is the #2 English-speaking television market.
  • A generously-funded Factual sector has been a creative innovator for generations.
  • However, the industry is enduring the twin disruptions of the rise of Netflix and other online viewing platforms, and a reactionary government that is deeply hostile to the BBC.
  • For the broadcasters, this dramatic shift translates into a shrinking and ageing audience, and upcoming budget cuts of uncertain scale.
  • Meanwhile, my recent visit to Paris revealed a relatively stable funding landscape where the total production spend will soon be topped up by the local programming quotas that will be enforced on streamers like Netflix.

My Post-Brexit Thoughts

  • More UK creatives are likely to become guns-for-hire in the EC and U.S., where they are valued for their directing, writing and other senior-level skills.
  • And British producers will become more active in the co-pro market.

Notes on the Data

  • The ‘000 P4+’ column refers to viewers 4 years and older in thousands.
  • Share refers to the program’s share of television sets in use at that time.
  • The data refers to highest single episode in a series.
  • The categories come from BARB, and titles are sometimes incomplete.

UK Broadcast Audience
Documentary & Hobbies Category
Top 50
2019

Channel Title ‘000 Viewers People 4+ Share
1 Channel 4 THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF 9,769 37.6
2 BBC 1 SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET 8,704 39.8
3 BBC 1 THE APPRENTICE 7,043 30.2
4 BBC 1 ANTIQUES ROADSHOW 6,789 32.9
5 BBC 1 COUNTRYFILE 6,564 33.5
6 ITV BRADLEY WALSH & SON: BREAKING DAD 6,447 28.5
7 BBC 1 BLUE PLANET LIVE 5,745 24.3
8 BBC 1 COUNTRYFILE WINTER SPECIAL 5,665 27.7
9 BBC 1 THE REPAIR SHOP AT CHRISTMAS 5,533 29.2
10 Channel 4 THE GREAT CELEBRITY BAKE OFF FOR SU2C 5,183 21.0
11 ITV HARRY’S HEROES: THE FULL ENGLISH 5,145 24.0
12 BBC 1 MASTERCHEF 5,015 22.5
13 BBC 1 WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? 5,013 24.5
14 ITV PAUL O’GRADY: FOR THE LOVE OF DOGS 4,910 22.9
15 BBC 1 THE MURDER OF JILL DANDO 4,901 21.4
16 Channel 4 LEAVING NEVERLAND: MICHAEL JACKSON & ME 4,672 20.8
17 ITV 63 UP 4,654 19.5
18 BBC 1 CELEBRITY MASTERCHEF 4,621 19.5
19 ITV GORDON, GINO AND FRED CHRISTMAS ROAD TRIP 4,545 19.6
20 Channel 4 GOGGLEBOX 4,517 22.0
21 BBC 1 EARTH FROM SPACE 4,494 17.8
22 BBC 1 CELEBRITY APPRENTICE FOR COMIC RELIEF 4,482 19.1
23 ITV FRED & ROSE WEST THE REAL STORY 4,421 18.7
24 ITV LONG LOST FAMILY: BORN WITHOUT TRACE 4,321 20.1
25 BBC 1 THE APPRENTICE: YOU’RE HIRED 4,236 24.3
26 BBC 1 DIY SOS: THE BIG BUILD 4,172 19.2
27 BBC 1 KILIMANJARO: THE BIGGER RED NOSE CLIMB 4,166 15.9
28 ITV LONG LOST FAMILY 4,159 18.1
29 Channel 4 GOGGLEBOX: CELEBRITY SPECIAL SU2C 2019 4,147 19.0
30 BBC 2 TOP GEAR 4,133 18.1
31 ITV INSIDE THE RITZ HOTEL 4,131 24.3
32 ITV MARTIN CLUNES: ISLANDS OF AMERICA 4,057 16.1
33 ITV BRITAIN’S BUSIEST AIRPORT – HEATHROW 4,041 22.8
34 Channel 4 CELEBRITY GOGGLEBOX 3,985 19.1
35 ITV THE ALL NEW MONTY: WHO BARES WINS 3,985 19.7
36 BBC 1 AMBULANCE 3,964 18.5
37 BBC 1 EAT WELL FOR LESS? 3,954 20.0
38 BBC 1 THE MET: POLICING LONDON 3,950 19.7
39 Channel 4 THE GREAT NEW YEAR’S BAKE OFF 3,891 14.2
40 BBC 1 THE REAL MARIGOLD ON TOUR 3,840 15.8
41 ITV WHAT THE DURRELLS DID NEXT 3,821 21.3
42 BBC 1 DIY SOS FOR CHILDREN IN NEED 3,752 17.3
43 ITV HARRY & MEGHAN: AN AFRICAN JOURNEY 3,741 16.6
44 ITV THE ALL NEW MONTY LADIES NIGHT: WHO BARE 3,701 17.7
45 BBC 2 THE GREAT BRITISH SEWING BEE 3,692 16.2
46 BBC 1 THE RHS CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW 3,685 21.1
47 ITV HATTON GARDEN: THE INSIDE STORY 3,658 17.3
48 Channel 4 THE GREAT CHRISTMAS BAKE OFF 3,650 13.8
49 ITV THE BEST LITTLE PRISON IN BRITAIN? 3,647 21.5
50 BBC 1 JACK THE RIPPER – THE CASE REOPENED 3,630 17.1

Birds star in the BBC ratings leader “Seven Worlds, One Planet”

TAKEAWAYS

Natural History

  • Seven Worlds One Planet (#2) and Blue Planet Live (#7) with David Attenborough scored with huge audiences.
  • Inspired by A&E’s international hit Live PD, channels and platforms everywhere are developing LIVE formats in many genres, notably in Natural History.

A Glut of Super- Blue Chip?

  • Are we heading towards a glut of big-budget Blue Chip Natural History series?
  • Most of these productions come from veterans of the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol.
  • Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+, and others have committed mega-millions on Blue Planet-like series that rely on years of research, extraordinary cinematography and never-before-seen sequences of stunning animal behavior.
  • After a while, these unforgettable ‘Signature’ scenes become the new normal.
  • The commissioning networks and platforms will find that they are paying premium costs for projects that are no longer unique, and that don’t break through.
  • Many industry insiders are predicting that buyers will refocus on less costly ($1 million +/-) but still Blue Chip wildlife programs that tell engaging stories, and that are suitable for both the channels and platforms.

Pets

  • It was an otherwise meagre Top 100 for the Wildlife genre, even for popular Pets programs.
  • Notable are Paul O’Grady’s For the Love of Dogs (#14, 77) and Britain’s Top 100 Dogs Live (#70, and note: more LIVE!)

Notorious Crime Pays

  • Great British crimes and criminality are revisited in the Top 50: the Hatton Garden heist, The Murder Of Jill Dando, Fred & Rose West, and even Jack The Ripper.
  • Crime, punishment and incarceration are well-covered, for example in Best Little Prison (49), Psychopaths (52) and Channel 4’s Police Custody / Reality series  (72)
  • Pop celebrity meets expose of criminality in the U.S. import Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson & Me (16).

Royals Downgraded

  • The Windsors have featured in the Top 100 list for years.
  • Their births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, funerals and lifestyle choices have all driven hits.
  • But not in 2019.
  • Even Meghan and Harry don’t rank until #43.
  • However, remarkably to this Brooklyn-based former colonial subject, The Queen’s Christmas Message ranks #1 in audience share and #3 in viewers for 2019 across the combined Documentary, Lifestyle and Current Affairs categories.
  • While her son HRH Andrew receives damaging coverage in Panorama‘s Jeffrey Epstein expose (#4).

Celebrity / Pop Culture

  • Celebrity-hosted documentaries and fundraisers did well, from Harry’s Heroes, Climbing Kilimanjaro, Celebrity Apprentice to Real Monty spin-offs, and more.

Franchises / Formats

  • I often congratulate the BBC’s lower-cost nostalgic franchises Countryfile and Antiques Roadshow for their powerhouse rankings, decade after decade.
  • Baking, Master Chef, Lost Lost Families and other formats continue to thrive, though I’m waiting and waiting for a new British format as fresh as Gogglebox was years ago (#20 and #34 in 2019).
  • Note also that Channel 5 dropped out of the Top 100,

UK Broadcast Audience
Documentary & Hobbies Category
#51-100,
2019

Channel Title ‘000 Viewers People 4+ Share
51 BBC 2 MASTERCHEF: THE PROFESSIONALS 3,546 17.8
52 ITV PSYCHOPATH WITH PIERS MORGAN 3,482 14.6
53 Channel 4 SAS: WHO DARES WINS 3,478 13.1
54 ITV THE CRUISE: SHANGHAI TO SYDNEY 3,470 16.3
55 BBC 1 SNOW ANIMALS 3,455 17.6
56 ITV LONG LOST FAMILY: WHAT HAPPENED NEXT 3,446 17.2
57 BBC 1 BLUE PLANET II: OCEANS OF WONDER 3,392 17.0
58 ITV PRINCE CHARLES: INSIDE THE DUCHY OF CORNWALL 3,358 15.7
59 BBC 2 TOP GEAR NEPAL SPECIAL 3,350 14.6
60 ITV HARD TO PLEASE OAPS 3,345 16.1
61 ITV THE JUNK FOOD EXPERIMENT 3,315 16.3
62 BBC 1 JESY NELSON: ODD ONE OUT 3,258 16.7
63 BBC 1 FAKE OR FORTUNE? 3,253 17.8
64 BBC 2 RACE ACROSS THE WORLD 3,226 14.0
65 BBC 1 JAPAN WITH SUE PERKINS 3,208 14.7
66 BBC 1 DIY SOS: CELEBRATING 20 YEARS 3,180 17.5
67 ITV CALL THE CLEANERS 3,163 17.0
68 ITV JILL DANDO – THE 20 YEAR MYSTERY 3,126 15.0
69 ITV BRITAIN’S BUSIEST MOTORWAY 3,120 14.4
70 ITV BRITAIN’S TOP 100 DOGS LIVE: 2019 3,119 13.7
71 Channel 4 24 HOURS IN POLICE CUSTODY 3,092 13.5
72 ITV VICTORIA’S PALACE 3,082 14.8
73 ITV SAVE MONEY: GOOD DIET 3,080 18.6
74 ITV HER MAJESTY’S CAVALRY 3,066 15.4
75 Channel 4 CELEBRITY HUNTED 3,063 13.4
76 BBC 1 THE REPAIR SHOP 3,052 26.1
77 ITV PAUL O’GRADY FOR THE LOVE OF DOGS XMAS 3,048 16.1
78 ITV BILLY CONNOLLY’S GREAT AMERICAN TRAIL 3,042 15.6
79 Channel 4 ESCAPE TO THE CHATEAU 3,032 13.2
80 ITV HOW TO SPEND IT WELL AT CHRISTMAS 3,012 14.0
81 ITV SAVE MONEY: LOSE WEIGHT 2,999 17.1
82 ITV CODE BLUE: MURDER 2,984 14.0
83 ITV INSIDE PRISON: BRITAIN BEHIND BARS 2,970 16.1
84 BBC 2 DRAGONS’ DEN 2,969 15.9
85 Channel 4 ESCAPE TO THE CHATEAU AT CHRISTMAS 2,966 12.2
86 ITV CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL KILLER WITH PIER 2,956 11.9
87 ITV SECRETS OF THE ROYAL BABIES: MEGHAN 2,955 12.9
88 BBC 1 SERENGETI 2,951 16.8
89 BBC 2 THE PLANETS (BBC2) 2,950 13.2
90 BBC 2 BILLY CONNOLLY: MADE IN SCOTLAND 2,935 10.8
91 BBC 2 INSIDE THE FACTORY 2,933 15.3
92 ITV WHAT WOULD YOUR KID DO? 2,932 15.1
93 ITV LONG LOST FAMILY SPECIAL: THE UNKNOWN 2,929 13.7
94 ITV EASYJET: INSIDE THE COCKPIT 2,925 14.0
95 ITV LOVE YOUR HOME AND GARDEN 2,897 13.1
96 ITV FIGHTER PILOT: THE REAL TOP GUN 2,886 14.4
97 ITV SAVE MONEY: GOOD HEALTH 2,884 15.0
98 ITV FRAUD: HOW THEY STEAL YOUR BANK ACCOUNT 2,882 14.4
99 ITV THE DEATH OF AIMEE SPENCER 2,874 11.5
100 BBC 1 OUR COPS IN THE NORTH 2,832 15.1

Documentary Production Roadmap

UK Broadcast Audience
Current Affairs Category
Top 25 2019

Channel Title ‘000 Viewers People 4+
1 BBC 1 THE QUEEN’S CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 7,184
2 BBC 1 OUR NEXT PRIME MINISTER 5,369
3 BBC 1 THE ONE SHOW 4,236
4 BBC 1 PANORAMA: THE PRINCE AND EPSTEIN 4,090
5 BBC 1 REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY: THE CENOTAPH 3,865
6 BBC 1 WAR ON PLASTIC WITH HUGH AND ANITA 3,629
7 BBC 1 CLIMATE CHANGE: THE FACTS 3,560
8 BBC 1 SHOP WELL FOR LESS? 3,433
9 BBC 1 WATCHDOG 3,397
10 BBC 1 FAKE BRITAIN 3,337
11 BBC 1 SUPERMARKET SECRETS 3,303
12 BBC 1 THE ANDREW NEIL INTERVIEWS 3,177
13 BBC 1 BRITAIN’S FAT FIGHT: THE BATTLE CONTINUE 2,987
14 BBC 1 INSIDE THE SUPERMARKET 2,949
15 BBC 1 QUESTION TIME 2,846
16 BBC 1 TAKEAWAY SECRETS EXPOSED: PANORAMA 2,727
17 BBC 1 RIP OFF BRITAIN 2,708
18 BBC 1 CRITICAL INCIDENT 2,626
19 BBC 1 THE SHERIFFS ARE COMING 2,612
20 BBC 1 QUESTION TIME ELECTION SPECIAL: UNDER 30 2,596
21 BBC 1 QUESTION TIME RESULTS SPECIAL 2,579
22 BBC 1 STACEY MEETS THE IS BRIDES: PANORAMA 2,397
23 BBC 1 PANORAMA: CONNED BY MY CHURCH 2,397
24 BBC 1 UNDERCOVER HOSPITAL ABUSE SCANDAL 2,394
25 BBC 1 CAN WE TRUST HUAWEI? – PANORAMA 2,277