In TV land, only the Toy Show and live sport have enduring appeal

Laura Slattery: The top television ratings a decade apart show how much has changed

How has what we watch on television changed over the past 10 years?

Comparing the list of the top 50 programmes consumed by Irish viewers in 2021 with the equivalent list for 2011 provides a partial snapshot, plus many statistical nuggets. The industry has evolved over the decade, and so, arguably, have we.

Granted, it is the state of the State that leaps out from the 2011 chart, not the state of television. The list is memory lane in tabular form, documenting the numbers who tuned into that year’s various election debates, including that notorious “bogus tweet” edition of the Frontline (12th with 792,000 viewers).

The visits of Queen Elizabeth (19th with 710,000 viewers) and Barack Obama (27th with 664,000) are in there, as is the plaintively titled Property Crash – Where to Now? (49th with 550,000 viewers), while the rankings come with the disclaimer that then taoiseach Enda Kenny's address to the nation, an austerity message that garnered 1.2 million viewers on December 4th, has been excluded by virtue of coming in shy of 15 minutes.

Redacting all the broadcast dates for a “guess the year” game would surely secure a high rate of correct answers.

The 2021 chart is a less reliable mirror. A time-traveller could ascertain that January 5th and January 7th last year were significant news days in light of the ratings for RTÉ’s Six-One (seventh with 798,000 viewers) and Nine O’Clock News bulletins (14th with 690,000 viewers), but that’s about it.

A defining – and, some might say, reassuring – feature of our 2021 television habits is that the immense swelling of news bulletin audiences seen in 2020 began to subside. For a proper sense of crisis, the time-traveller would have to consider the 2020 list, when the St Patrick's Day emergency ministerial broadcast by then taoiseach Leo Varadkar was watched by 1.6 million people on RTÉ One, placing it second only to perennial poll-topper, the Late Late Toy Show.

Ratings panel

Some background: linear television audience ratings are compiled by research giant Nielsen on behalf of industry body TAM Ireland by installing an electronic monitoring system known as a "peoplemeter" in a representative panel of TV homes. So if you're not part of the panel and you switch on Operation Transformation because your cousin's girlfriend's brother is on it, it's fine, nobody will know.

The "consolidated" ratings include recorded playbacks, but not on-demand views. This means that as usage of the broadcasters' players has grown, so too has the portion of programmes' total audience not being captured. A substantial volume of viewing – there were 67 million streams on the RTÉ Player and 44.5 million on the Virgin Media Player in 2021 – is counted and reported separately.

Still, rising player views haven’t fully offset the decline in linear viewing for certain shows and genres amid what has been a relentless fragmentation in the entertainment landscape. Soap operas, for instance, amass some of the highest streaming totals for broadcasters on account of having so many episodes per year, but those tallies, if averaged out, don’t appear to make up for the loss of linear viewers over the longer term.

In 2011, Fair City (14th with 764,000 viewers), Coronation Street (16th with 749,000 viewers) and EastEnders (31st with 646,000 viewers) all appeared on the top 50 list. In 2021, none of them did.

Meanwhile, the cut-off average audience for a programme to make the top 50 in 2011 was 541,000. Last year, it was more than 100,000 lower at 439,000.

The top 50 list for the Irish television market does come with the caveat that it shows the “best episode” ratings of any title, which over-emphasises the impact of one-off events and underplays the stalwart, day-in, day-out performance of multi-episode shows like soaps.

Dominant sport

The allure of sport has barely faded much at all, however.

The 2011 chart only includes the most-watched All-Ireland football and hurling, Six Nations, Rugby World Cup and Euro 2012 qualification play-off games, but all but one of the fixtures excluded on these grounds would only have scraped the lower echelons of the top 50 anyway. Now it is normal for the most-watched list to be dominated by sport. Even with the "bonus" of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, that seven of the top 10 and 11 of the top 20 programmes in 2021 were live sporting occasions is a remarkable sight.

In 2011, the most-watched Six Nations game was Ireland v England (21st with 690,000 viewers) on RTÉ2, while a decade later, it was Ireland v France (sixth with 798,000 viewers) on Virgin Media One. This trajectory tells two stories. The first is that rugby has become a bigger draw – a much-coveted schedule jewel. The second is that its popularity relative to everything else has also improved.

Sustaining the appeal of non-sport television heavy-hitters, by contrast, now feels much trickier.

Take the Eurovision Song Contest, which claimed second place in the 2011 list but didn’t make the 2021 one at all. There is an underlying explanation: Ireland did not qualify for the grand final last year, while 10 years earlier, Jedward came eighth with Lipstick.

Still, the last time Ireland was in the final (2018), Eurovision was only the 11th most-watched programme and its audience was almost 500,000 lower than the 1.18 million who braved the twins’ first bid for Euro glory.

Audience magnets

That the Rose of Tralee, a Covid casualty in 2020 and 2021, also slid in our affections between 2011 (ninth with 829,000 viewers) and 2019 (24th with 554,000 viewers) is another indicator that it’s tough at the top. This is even true for one-time audience magnet Mrs Brown’s Boys, which has gone from fifth with 952,000 viewers in 2011 to 21st with 589,000 viewers last year – though many programme-makers would obviously still kill for Agnes Brown’s figures.

The two great anomalies on each list are the sole imported dramas that make both: Desperate Housewives in 2011 (50th with 541,000 viewers) and Quiz in 2021 (46th with 448,000). The audience for drama has splintered so much across a panoply of apps, platforms and channels, it would not be a surprise if drama imports like these, with no Irish themes, soon disappear from the annual top 50 lists for good.

Everything has its day. Hard as it is to contemplate, there may even be a future with no Toy Show in it.