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Doctor Who Ratings: How Strong is the Safety Net?

Doctor Who is an institution. It’s got legendary status. It’s also old, which can be a dirty word these days, and it has seen better days, no doubt. It’s supposed to be a fresh take and new direction every time there’s a new Doctor. But these days, it seems like more and more, a regeneration is just as much a jumping-off point as it is a jumping-on point.

Some of the old school fans have issues with everything about the new Who era. Some recognise it as the same show, albeit faster paced and with a bigger budget aimed squarely at the 21st Century. Some of the new era fans won’t go near the classic version and only liked the Doctor when he was young and hot. Some got bored after a while and just left.

With the coming of the Chris Chibnall era came a new direction that divided fandom more than ever before. After the events of The Timeless Child, it’s especially hard to predict what’s going to happen. All we know is that the Chibnall era will continue until the end of 2021, probably into the beginning of 2022, with the remainder of Series 13, one more special, or both, at least. 

The ratings have been steadily falling ever since The Ghost Monument, the second episode of Series 11. Even with the extended ratings adding in delayed viewing, the end result has gone from 11 million down to around 5 million. 

But does any of this matter? Maybe not as much as we think. We’ve heard from commenters here about the state and possible death knell of the BBC from political ends. But again, the BBC, publicly anyway, seems to still fully support Doctor Who as much as, if not more than, they did during the Steven Moffat era. Perhaps both entities are far more secure than we could guess? This outward confidence of the BBC might just be posturing or things might indeed be in a far more solid financial position than the public knows.

I think the first place to look is BBC Worldwide, now BBC Studios. It not being publicly funded, I think that’s a big part of whatever safety net exists. It exists to sell BBC product around the world, and I believe it makes a decent amount of money. Someone is funding this all-new drive to animate all the missing episodes at a greater and more comprehensive rate than ever before. At one time, it seemed very difficult to get things animated just to cover missing episodes alone in black and white. Now, entire classic stories are being animated — in colour, and going to the extra trouble and expense of animating the existing episodes of the story as well, just for visual consistency. This was first done with The Faceless Ones but it’s a very telling development I think. It seems as though the purse strings have loosened a great deal.

Taking the initiative to put out the entire seasons of classic Who on Blu-ray with a bunch of extras speaks volumes too. I’m sure the animating is directly tied into that endeavour. Books, magazines, audios, discs, digital content, albums! Product, product, product. Speaking of…

Doctor Who is far from the only series that BBC Studios promotes and sells their merchandise but another factor is the franchise catalogue. Few television entities have a catalogue as voluminous as Doctor Who. The bigger, the better. More networks, cable outlets, etc., have begun to order more and more episodes of different series, sometimes two or three series in advance, to ensure a bigger, beefier catalogue down the line when talking about syndication or, more prominently, streaming episodes. The classic Doctor Who series is included in various streaming entities, such as BritBox. The new era series’ are available for purchase on Amazon Prime. Big Finish have audio rights. Each year (or every other year, these days), with every new series, the catalogue gets bigger and bigger. So big that I’m willing to bet that with so many people, companies, countries interested in the whole of Doctor Who (through Series 14, as heard from some quarters), it’s very possible that in the big picture, no, the ratings actually don’t mean anything at all. Seen as a whole, the plummeting ratings of Series 11 and 12 will barely register as a blip, long-term. 

And let’s not forget one very important point: corporate doesn’t care one whit about creativity and originality. They care about the bottom line, and Doctor Who is a juggernaut which will survive in some form, ad infinitum.

I think it has a very large, very cushy, safety net. 

Rick Lundeen

Doctor Who Ratings: How Strong is the Safety Net?

by Rick Lundeen time to read: 3 min
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