Boris Johnson and Queen send TV ratings to historic highs

Coronavirus has dominated the most-watched TV programmes of the year so far, with speeches by the Prime Minister and the Queen attracting some of the biggest audiences in broadcasting history, new analysis shows.

Boris Johnson’s announcement on March 23 that the UK was going into lockdown was simultaneously broadcast across six television channels: BBC One, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky News and BBC News.

On BBC One, the speech attracted 14.6 million viewers, which by itself was one of the biggest TV audiences in recent years.

But combined with the ratings across all six channels, the speech had a total TV audience averaging 28.2 million – large enough to rank as one of the most-watched broadcasts in UK television history.

(PA Graphics)

The Queen was not far behind.

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

Meanwhile Mr Johnson’s second TV address delivered on May 10, during which he announced an initial easing of the lockdown in England, pulled in a combined audience of 27.6 million: slightly lower than his first speech, but still huge by historic standards.

A massive 18.8 million TV viewers saw this second speech just on BBC One, a figure which currently ranks as the largest audience for a single channel so far in 2020.

By way of a comparison, the Gavin And Stacey Christmas special – the most-watched programme of 2019 – pulled in a TV audience of 17.1 million viewers.

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

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

But excluding news and sport events, the biggest TV audience of the past decade was 17.7 million, set by an edition of The X Factor back in December 2010.

Screen grab of Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation from 10 Downing Street, London, as he placed the UK on lockdown
Screen grab of Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation from 10 Downing Street, London, as he placed the UK on lockdown (PA Video/PA)

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.

The analysis has been done by the PA news agency, using figures published by the audience research organisation Barb.

Because the method of calculating ratings has changed several times over the past 70 years, it is impossible to know for certain how this year’s 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.

Coronavirus appears again further down the most-watched list for 2020, in the shape of a BBC One news special that followed directly after Mr Johnson’s first televised address (a TV audience of 13.5 million) and an edition of the BBC News At Six shown on March 18 (8.8 million), the day the Prime Minister announced that schools were to close across the country.

The chart is not entirely filled with broadcasts to do with Covid-19, however.

ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent and Saturday Night Takeaway make the top 10, along with BBC One dramas The Salisbury Poisonings and Call The Midwife.

The data from Barb also shows that in April of this year – the first full month of lockdown – the average amount of television watched each day in the UK was 211 minutes.

Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly
Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly made the list (Ian West/PA)

This was the highest monthly level since January 2018 (213 minutes).

The figure then dropped to 192 minutes in May 2020, while in June it was 189 minutes – though this was still 9% higher than the equivalent figure for June 2019 (173 minutes).

Here are the top 10 biggest TV audiences in 2020 so far, based on the highest-rated instance of each type of programme or broadcast on a single channel:

Prime ministerial statement, May 10 (BBC One) 18.75 million
BBC news special, Mar 23 (BBC One) 13.51 million
Britain’s Got Talent, Apr 11 (ITV) 10.85 million
Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, Mar 21 (ITV) 10.61 million
The Salisbury Poisonings, Jun 14 (BBC One) 10.02 million
Quiz, Apr 13 (ITV) 8.80 million
BBC News At Six, Mar 18 (BBC One) 8.78 million
Call The Midwife, Jan 5 (BBC One) 8.61 million
White House Farm, Feb 12 (ITV) 8.42 million
Silent Witness, Jan 7 (BBC One) 8.28 million