TV ratings war as Britain slumps on the sofa

Strictly and X factor: We watch in comfort as they work hard for fame and glory

The nights are drawing in, and Britons have retreated indoors for their favourite seasonal entertainment: Saturday night talent shows. Aimless froth, or important source of communal cheer?

It’s the first big TV battle of the year: celebrities in spangly tights learning to dance versus unknowns who want a shot at stardom.

Strictly Come Dancing pulled in 8.4 million viewers on Saturday night, and The X Factor was seen by 8.3 million. Not a very dramatic difference, you might think, and the shows only overlapped for ten minutes of airtime. But so deadly is the rivalry between these two blockbusters that Monday’s newspapers were full of stories about a victory for the BBC in the ratings battle, and a humiliation for ITV’s team of producers and presenters.

Talent shows and competitions are now well established as the most popular form of what is traditionally known in the television industry as ‘light entertainment’. Britain’s Got Talent became so popular after it launched in 2007 that the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, claimed it was his favourite viewing. And ‘X Factor culture’ is so pervasive that it has even been blamed for corrupting a generation who want overnight fame rather than the sort of success that comes from hard work and patient application.

Every time viewers think the possibilities of this genre of TV have been exhausted, the channels come up with a new format: traditional cookery programmes have given way to competitions like Masterchef. The Great British Bake Off, a hit programme with viewers across the generations, mixes patriotism and the traditional game show with a passion for pastry and cake: the result is a light confection on a base of solid technical skills.

And social media has made watching television a communal activity again: far from drifting towards watching everything later online, most of us still watch programmes at the time they are aired, and enjoy another dimension to the experience as we chat about it live on Twitter or Facebook.

Behind the scenes, however, this is a cut-throat business. Production contracts and millions of pounds of advertising depend on whether this series of X Factor, for example, hits its ratings highs of 14 million, or slumps as viewers switch channels.

A pleasure shared?

Some will say stories about TV ratings are as frothy as the frills on a flamenco dress. ‘What a lot of fuss and bother about something so silly!’ they cry. ‘How can the newspapers even pretend that stories about television talent shows are worth column inches when the world is facing so many problems?’

But many would argue that popular culture should be allowed its place alongside more serious matters. The ups and downs of communal entertainment are an important means of national bonding. This is a sweet treat after the main course of international crises and domestic political scandals: all of these things have their place in a balanced media diet.

You Decide

  1. Do you find talent shows boring, inspiring, or corrupting?
  2. Can social media make an activity truly communal, or do people have to be in the same place?


  1. In teams, think up your own talent show or television competition format.
  2. Read the television review in the links on this story, and try to write your own stylish review of a programme you enjoy.

Some People Say...

“People must be amused.’ Charles Dickens, Hard Times”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are you calling me a couch potato?
No. If you like watching these huge hit shows, or others like them, that’s fine. But it’s a good idea to think about what you like about them and why, because TV is a big part of modern life and we are all influenced by what we see, consciously or unconsciously.
What do you mean?
Well, some commentators have claimed that popular talent shows have changed our definition of success. If they have made us expect overnight fame and riches, we should definitely think again: for everyX Factor winner who shoots to stardom there are many more, even in entertainment and the arts, who earned their success through years of dedicated practice.

Word Watch

26 million households in the UK have a licence to watch television. The Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board commissions specialist polling companies to regularly track viewing behaviour on behalf of the industry. Advertising costs are calculated on these results.
Gordon Brown
Labour Party leader and prime minister of the UK from 2007, when he took over from Tony Blair without being elected in a general election. Brown was defeated in the general election of 2010. His aides let it be known that he was a fan of talent shows because he believed they showed how ordinary people could triumph.
Production contracts
Most television programmes in Britain are now made by outside companies who are then paid by the television channels to produce programmes for them. But the BBC, which is funded by the taxpayer through the income from the television licence, still makes much of its programming in-house.


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