2016: a year in commercial TV By Lisa Campbell

In times of turmoil, we often turn to television; whether for escapist drama and much-loved comedy, or for insightful news and factual programming to help us make sense of our increasingly uncertain world. The past 12 months have highlighted TV’s vital role in reflecting our cultural climate and we can only anticipate that this role will become ever more critical as global events continue to unfold.

The creative highs of commercial television were many in 2016 but it was drama that once again fed into the idea that we are enjoying something of a golden age of television.

Dramatic highs

Alongside channel-defining and award-winning drama, there were also the record breakers, king among them, Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones.

The stakes were high for the drama, not least because season 6 entered new territory by leaping ahead of George RR Martin’s unfinished book series. Would it maintain its previous highs or would it jump the shark?

It emerged that GoT had a renewed sense of vigour, increasingly compelling characters – with notably powerful story arcs for its female leads – and combined with its incredible production values, it’s perhaps little wonder that it became the most successful season to date, averaging more than 5 million viewers per episode, including through the Sky Go app and NOW TV - a 40%+ increase on Season 5.

There were many more record-breakers across commercial TV in 2016, from Channel 5 clocking up its biggest audience ever for a drama with the opener of the new X-Files and Sky Atlantic achieving its biggest launch with the futuristic HBO series, Westworld, to Discovery Channel which struck gold when the finale of Gold Rush, series 6, attracted its biggest ratings in almost a decade. Meanwhile, a record of a different kind was broken by ITV’s enduringly popular Midsomer Murders: it was the first time in the drama’s 19-year history that an episode didn’t feature a murder…

ITV enjoyed more success when Cold Feet made a triumphant return after a 13-year absence, launching with a huge 8.4m. This series, alongside the likes of the wonderfully warm family drama The Durrells and impressive period drama Victoria, gave ITV a raft of successful drama series.

Dramas to look forward to in 2017 include Channel 4’s The ABC set in a vibrant and multicultural school in Yorkshire; Sky Atlantic’s Guerilla, a timely drama about the racial tensions of the 70s, helmed by John Ridley, and the return of cult series Twin Peaks, with the reclusive David Lynch directing all 18 episodes. It’s going to be epic…

Meanwhile, 2017 is set to see some drama on the sports field too, with Eurosport airing all four tennis Grand Slams, three cycling Grand Tours and comprehensive coverage of the Athletics World Championships, among many other sports. It’s set to keep viewers on the edges of their seats, much as they were in 2016 with ITV’s debut coverage of the 6 Nations, not to mention Channel 4’s award-winning Paralympics coverage and of course Sky and BT Sport’s amazing sports offerings covering football to Formula 1.

Modern Life is Goodish, Dave
Modern Life is Goodish, Dave

Comedy charms younger viewers

Viewers were certainly in need of laughs in 2016 and UKTV enjoyed notable success with its UKTV Originals on Dave, with eight of these commissions appearing in the channel’s top 10. Alongside the enormously popular space spoof Red Dwarf, key titles included Dave Gorman Modern Life is Goodish; the comedy gem Taskmaster, brilliantly helmed by Greg Davies and Alex Horne to make it one of the funniest series on TV; as well as Dara O Briain’s Go 8 Bit. These original commissions also proved a hit with younger audiences.

ITV2 also enjoyed a boost among this demo – up 25% year-on-year - helped in large part by BBC3 going online-only and leaving it with its crown jewels, Family Guy. Meanwhile, long-running stablemate Celebrity Juice shows no signs of waning with one episode clocking up over 2m viewers. However, the monster hit of the summer was Love Island which doubled the audience of series 1, with a massive 64% of its audience under 35.

Channel 5 also gained a greater share of the younger audience. A key title was Lip Sync Battle UK, based on the hit Spike format, delivering over a quarter of young viewers during transmission. Viacom also grabbed a bigger share of younger viewers via MTV - which achieved its highest year for share thanks to titles such as Geordie Shore, Ex on the Beach, Teen Mom and its local spinoff Teen Mom UK – as well as via Comedy Central with key series including Drunk History and Russell Howard & Mum: USA Road Trip – it’s highest-rating commission yet.

Going younger still, Cartoon Network was the number one commercial kids channel for boys (aged 4-15) and continues to offer a wealth of creator-driven series with layered characters, We Bare Bears among them, which rightfully scooped a Kid’s BAFTA. At the same time, more girls are coming to the channel thanks to the new-look The Powerpuff Girls which has responded to the increasing demand for more female role models.

Enduring classics keep entertainment alive

More laughs for both children and adults were to be found in entertainment, not least thanks to ITV’s star presenters, Ant & Dec, recently appointed OBE and winning Best Presenter for the 16th consecutive year at the National Television Awards. Saturday Night Takeaway launched with its biggest audience in a decade and series 16 of I’m a Celebrity was its most watched programme of the year, with a bumper 12.7m viewers.

Another key moment in entertainment came with the launch of UKTV’s W channel, which replaced Watch and boosted female viewership by 20% with output including John Bishop: In Conversation with James Cordon.

Meanwhile, entertainment and comedy shows to look forward to in 2017 include the return of the iconic Crystal Maze, Catastrophe and Mitchell and Webb’s new series Back, all on Channel 4, and on ITV, physical gameshow Bigheads and The Voice Kids.

Jihadis Next Door, Channel 4
Please put figure caption here

Fighting fake news with facts

With terrorism attacks in Europe, the war in Syria and the EU referendum exposing an increasingly divided Britain, current affairs and factual continue to play a vital role in the schedules. On Channel 4, highlights included Jihadis Next Door and Extremely British Muslims, as well as Channel 4 News, which, from Aleppo to fake news, continues to dig, analyse and challenge.

In early 2016, Channel 5 rebranded to reflect its evolution to a channel offering increased volumes of quality, homegrown content spanning everything from comedy to history and natural history. It also aired a range of critically-acclaimed factual series exploring issues ranging from homelessness to alcoholism. Gangland was a particularly groundbreaking example showing gang life, in all its brutality, through the eyes of gang members themselves.

Channel 5 pledges to build on its slate of programming with a social conscience in 2017 and has earmarked a move into noisy, topical event programming - a recent commission being The Great Divide, where in a post-Brexit world, people who differ vastly in terms of age and viewpoints move into a house together to see if they can bridge the increasingly widening generation gap. Further divisions will be exposed via Rich House, Poor House where the bottom 10% of society swap lifestyles with the top.

Channel 4, meanwhile, is continuing to experiment with hybrid formats – whether it’s The Trial, a drama/doc which explores a fictional crime through the eyes of legal professionals, or Mutiny (working title), which injects drama into factual by challenging a group of men to relive one of the greatest feats in naval history.

The channel is also using artists and authors to provide a unique perspective on current events. Grayson Perry, for example, will attempt to capture what a divided country is thinking and turn it into two pieces of art: one for the Brexiteers and one for the Remainers with the artist believing these are the two great tribes of our time – their differences far more fundamental than any disagreement over the EU.

But will it be a battle to rival that of Bake Off? With Channel 4 succeeding in securing the hit series from Love Productions and prompting 2016’s biggest TV storm, it’s a story set to dominate the headlines as we wait to see how the show will evolve, and crucially, perform.

Who’s betting it will be baked to perfection?

  • Lisa Campbell
    Lisa Campbell
    Director of the Edinburgh International Television Festival
  • Posted under
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