Change Ahead for Saturday Night TV

Change Ahead for Saturday Night TV
Change Ahead for Saturday Night TV

By Nick Fisher

Saturday has always been a big night for broadcasters. There’s a straight line that runs from the 1970s, when millions of people were tuning into Bruce Forsyth on The Generation Game,to Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Today, Saturday night entertainment is still a big industry:

  • Saturday Night Takeaway’s launch attracted 9 million viewers
  • 6 million viewers in for the second season of Michael McIntyre’s Big Show

Despite the success variety shows have had on Saturday evenings, there are some traditional heavy-hitters that have not fared as well – namely music competition programmes.

Looking for The X factor in The X Factor


Since launching in 2004, The X Factor has been a dominating weekend presence. At its height, it seemed like The X Factor managed to capture the attention of the entire nation (the 2010 finale attracted 55% of the total viewing audience).

However, over the past 6 years there has been a steady decline in the number of viewers watching the programme: an average of 17.2 million individuals viewed The X Factor finale in 2010 vs. the 7 million that tuned in for the 2016 equivalent.

Programmes like The Voice (whose audience has decreased every season it has aired) and Gary Barlow’s Let It Shine (running 700,000 viewers beneath the BBC’s slot average) are also facing similar declines. What’s happened?

Is the Saturday Night Magic Disappearing?


Not exactly. The source of this decline is not due to overall changing Saturday night viewing habits. The successes of Saturday Night Takeaway and the Big Show prove that there is a still an appetite for family-friendly Saturday evening TV.

Our own research into the industry has repeatedly shown that Saturday night remains a big part of family time for viewers around the UK. At the same time, Strictly Come Dancing’s massive success proves that audiences are still excited by a bit of weekend glitz and glamour; this year’s semi-final drew in a 4 year high of 11.8 million viewers.

On the surface, music competitions seem like a perfect fit for these Saturday night needs: big-budget programmes that have something for the entire family and which capture the fun and upbeat spirit that viewers associate with the weekend. But why aren’t they landing with audiences?

Musical Tastes Are Changing…


A broader consideration of the British musical scene should not be ignored. In 2004 people knew which tracks were in the charts. Top of the Pops was still being shown on Friday nights and listeners actually cared about the Christmas number one. Today, sources of music have been splintered:

  • 90% of the British population flick on to their favourite radio station each week
  • Platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud offer alternative discovery methods
  • Streaming services such as Spotify are handing over the curation controls to their listeners

Consequently, are shows that cater for broad musical tastes failing to land with audiences because they are out of step with modern consumers who are used to more adaptive and nuanced listening options?

… and so are our expectations from ‘event TV’


Fracturing perceptions of when ‘event TV’ occurs may be partly to blame as well. With 15.9 million viewers, The Great British Bake Off finale was the most watched UK show of 2016 and averaged about 13.6m viewers across the series. These numbers more than match those of the X Factor and its musical competitors at their heights – but the difference is that Bake Off was broadcast on a Wednesday night.

At the same time, users are increasingly turning towards SVOD providers like Netflix and Amazon to get their content-kicks on demand, any day of the week. No more are individuals bound by scheduling. Instead, they can now pick and choose what they watch, when they want to watch it.

While previous linear generations had clear expectations of what to expect from programming on different days of the weeks, it seems that those perceptions – influenced by alternative event-TV evenings and adaptable schedules – have become blurred in recent years.

Viewers Want a New Saturday Night Experience


The wind of change is already blowing through weekend programming. The BBC’s broadcast of Taboo in the Saturday evening slot (a drama that would traditionally air on a Sunday evening) has faired fairly well: although it suffered from declining overnight numbers towards the end of its eight episode run, it’s first seven episodes have a respectable consolidated viewing average of 5.8 million viewers (1.5m above the slot average).

Is Taboo’s success the first sign of sweeping changes to Saturday evening schedules? We’re not quite at that point yet. But it’s clear that audiences are certainly ready to try something new: in an interview with the BBC in January, Gary Barlow – promoting Let it Shine – enthusiastically claimed that the British public were “ready for a new Saturday night experience”. Maybe they are – but only if that experience doesn’t involve a panel of judges in some spinning chairs…

By Nick Fisher, co-founder, Hook Research

Hook Research is a media research and content development agency. We are proud to provide consumer insights and brand strategy to some of the biggest organisations across media, youth, and entertainment all over the world. 

*All Overnights and Consolidated Viewing numbers referenced can be found on Broadcast Now (

Article reproduced with permission of RW Connect and ESOMAR.


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