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TV ratings soar to historic highs during year since lockdown

A quote from the Queen’s televised coronavirus address, seen on a screen in London’s Piccadilly Circus (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
A quote from the Queen’s televised coronavirus address, seen on a screen in London’s Piccadilly Circus (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

A combination of coronavirus, Boris Johnson and the royal family has meant the past 12 months have seen some of the biggest TV audiences in UK broadcasting history, new analysis shows.

In the year since the country was first sent into lockdown on March 23 2020, ratings have climbed above 20 million on several occasions, the sort of TV audience more common for World Cup football or the Olympics.

Topping the chart of the most-watched broadcasts since lockdown began is the Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson’s televised address on May 10 2020, during which he announced an initial easing of the lockdown in England, was broadcast simultaneously across seven channels.

On BBC One the speech attracted 18.8 million viewers: the single biggest TV audience on an individual channel in the past 12 months.

But combined with ratings across all seven channels, the speech had a total TV audience of 27.6 million, large enough to rank as one of the most-watched broadcasts in UK history.

A screen grab of Boris Johnson addressing the nation on May 10 2020 (PA)
A screen grab of Boris Johnson addressing the nation on May 10 2020 (PA)

The Queen was not far behind.

Her short televised address to the nation on April 5 2020, during which she echoed Dame Vera Lynn’s wartime song and told the nation “we will meet again”, had 14.0m viewers on BBC One and a combined TV audience across seven channels of 24.3 million.

Meanwhile Mr Johnson’s TV address on March 23 2020, when he first announced the UK was going into lockdown, had 14.6 million viewers as part of a BBC One news special, but pulled in a combined audience across six channels of 28.2 million.

(PA graphic)

The analysis has been compiled by the PA news agency based on ratings data from the audience research organisation Barb.

It reveals that the biggest TV audience of the past 12 months for a programme not connected to Covid-19 was for the interview between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and US broadcaster Oprah Winfrey.

A total of 13.9 million saw the interview on ITV, which was aired on March 8 2021.

A man watches the Duke and Duchess of Sussex interview with Oprah Winfrey on ITV on March 8 2021 (Yui Mok/PA)
A man watches the Duke and Duchess of Sussex interview with Oprah Winfrey on ITV on March 8 2021 (Yui Mok/PA)

Other programmes appearing in the most-watched list of the past 12 months include ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, with ratings of 13.8 million for its launch episode on November 15 2020: the second highest TV audience in the programme’s history.

On Channel 4, The Great British Bake Off scored its highest average audience since moving from BBC One, with the final episode on November 24 2020 attracting enough TV viewers (11.5 million) to become one of the most-watched programmes since the channel began in 1982.

The chart also features long-running favourites Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent, both of which enjoyed strong ratings in the past 12 months.

Only one entirely new series makes the top 10: the BBC One fact-based drama The Salisbury Poisonings, which had a TV audience of 10.0 million for its first episode on June 14 2020.

Figures quoted here are consolidated ratings, meaning they include people who recorded and watched a broadcast up to seven days later, the industry standard for measuring TV audiences.

Mr Johnson’s most recent televised address on January 4 2021, announcing a new lockdown in England, had a TV audience of 14.1 million on BBC One and a combined audience across five channels of 25.1 million.

Fireworks go off during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Fireworks go off during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Television audiences numbering more than 20 million have become increasingly rare in the UK.

The single biggest audience in the previous decade for a broadcast on an individual channel was 24.5 million, which was the number who watched the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games on BBC One.

But excluding news and sport events, the highest-rated programme since 2010 remains the final of ITV’s The X Factor in December 2010, which had a TV audience of 17.7 million.

Because the method of calculating ratings has changed several times over the past 70 years, it is impossible to know for certain how the recent bumper TV audiences compare like-for-like with the size of audiences for events such as the 1966 World Cup final or the 1981 royal wedding – though they are likely to rank alongside them in terms of the sheer volume of households tuned to their television sets.

Here are the top 10 biggest TV audiences for the 12 months since lockdown began, based on the highest-rated instance of each type of programme or broadcast on a single channel:

Prime Ministerial statement, May 10 2020 (BBC One) 18.8 million
BBC news special, March 23 2020 (BBC One) 14.6 million
Queen’s TV address, April 5 2020 (BBC One) 14.0 million
Oprah with Meghan & Harry, March 8 2021 (ITV) 13.9 million
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, November 15 2020 (ITV) 13.8 million
Strictly Come Dancing, December 19 2020 (BBC One) 12.4 million
The Great British Bake Off, November 24 2020 (C4) 11.5 million
Britain’s Got Talent, April 11 2020 (ITV) 10.9 million
The Salisbury Poisonings, June 14 2020 (BBC One) 10.0 million
Happy New Year Live!, December 31 2020 (BBC One) 9.9 million

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