'Streaming giants like Netflix and Disney+ can never beat Saturday night TV'

With The 1% Club, Gladiators and Saturday Night Takeaway creating must-watch TV moments, we look at the one battleground streaming can't win

Britain's Got Talent, The 1% Club, and Gladiators are offering UK viewers something that streaming can't. (ITV/BBC)
Britain's Got Talent, The 1% Club, and Gladiators are offering UK viewers something that streaming can't. (ITV/BBC)

There's no denying ratings for Saturday night television are down from its once hedonistic highs. However, Saturday night television feel rather reinvigorated at the moment.

Britain’s Got Talent, which came back last weekend, had five million viewers and 4.5 million viewers for Saturday and Sunday respectively. Whilst the opener was ITV’s biggest overnight rating of the year, it is quite down from the average 13 million viewers the show had in its heyday.

The same was true Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. The two hour finale was watched by 4.6 million viewers (peaking with 5.3 million), down from the 8.5 million that watched only a few years ago. Even Strictly is a bit down from where it used to be, with last year’s final receiving 8.8 million last year, down half a million from the year before, which is itself a bit down from the 13 million who watched the final back in 2017.

You might assume that broadcasters would be in turmoil as viewing habits seem to be heading in a downward trajectory. And yet, weirdly, the opposite feels true if you look at the schedules.

Lee Mack hosts ITV's The 1% Club. (ITV)
Lee Mack hosts ITV's The 1% Club. (ITV)

Lee Mack’s quiz The 1% Club has been the most popular game show in a decade, says ITV, and has been increasing its audience in its new primetime slot. On the BBC, Gladiators has been viewed by more than eight million viewers, rising even further to nearly ten million when you consider catch-up. And then there’s what's still to come: a supercharged Doctor Who, with Ncuti Gatwa already a totally compelling Doctor, further boosted by Russell T Davies and a supercharged budget by Disney+, which is coming back to Saturday nights in May.

Read more: What you need to know about the next series of Doctor Who

So what's going on? Last week Richard Osman, on the podcast The Rest is Entertainment which he co-presents with Marina Hyde, posed an interesting explanation. He said that whilst the ratings for Saturday night shows are generally on the way down, they still holding up better than the a lot of people within the industry expected in light of fierce streaming competition. Where reduced ratings once spelled doom and gloom for TV execs, they're now being seen as the new normal.

Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (ITV)
Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway recently went on hiatus after its 20th series. (ITV)

"I think there is now an attitude in the linear television industry that goes, ‘hold on a minute, we are getting five million people to watch this," said Osman. "We are now slightly making our bed differently and saying, 'if we can get four, five, six million, this is amazing. Occasionally with Strictly, we will hit ten [million].'"

I agree with him, but I reckon that there’s something else happening here too. If you take a look at the streaming world, there’s been some colossal global hits, from Stranger Things to Squid Game, but it is rare for there to be a streaming hit that the whole family can enjoy.

Wednesday. Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams in episode 105 of Wednesday. Cr. Vlad Cioplea/Netflix © 2022
Tim Burton's Wednesday is the closest Netflix has come to a family-friendly hit, but even that is 12-rated. (Vlad Cioplea/Netflix)

Even some shows — like the supernatural black comedy Wednesday — which you would expect to be for the whole family, has a 12 BBFC rating. Netflix is a lot more transparent with its viewing figures these days, publishing a weekly top ten of its most watched shows. Currently only one of the shows in the top ten is a show that kids can also watch, it’s called Bad Dinosaurs, and it is literally a kids' show.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one of strengths of streaming is the fact that viewership can be so fragmented, and also tailored very specifically to fit our own interests. And while streaming services appear to have shows that cater for every individual's niche interest, the shows that appeal to all ages that are better when watched communally have been forgotten.

There still remains a huge opportunity for the BBC and ITV to make shows that would appeal to many different generations of viewers. And when do these shows tend to air? Saturday nights. There is no 'Saturday night' on Netflix, or Prime, or Disney+ or any of subscription services.

Romesh Ranganathan is the host of The Weakest Link (BBC/Alan Peebles)
Romesh Ranganathan is the host of The Weakest Link (BBC/Alan Peebles)

These channels can also lean more into programmes that simply haven’t taken off in such a big way on streaming such as quizzes or game shows, hence why The 1% Club and The Weakest Link with Romesh Ranganathan make up a lot of the early evening viewing.

An issue for viewers though is that, in this current environment when competition is so fierce, it is much easier to recommission an existing show than it is to launch a brand new show, because you can always expect a certain number of viewers. That’s why there are a lot of shows on still that have been around for years. Britain’s Got Talent is on series 17. Strictly Come Dancing is on series 20. Even Gladiators — arguably the show of the year — is basically a continuation of a 30-year-old show.

Gladiators has been an unprecedented hit for the BBC on Saturday nights. (BBC)
Gladiators has been an unprecedented hit for the BBC on Saturday nights. (BBC)

Still, at least the channels are investing so much into Saturday night programming. Saturday night television is very much a British institution, one that you won’t find on the schedules in America or in Australia.

Read more: Gladiators renewed for a second season

And heck, at least they’re offering a bit more than Channel 5 at the moment, who — once again on a Saturday night — aired another sixty minute documentary about air fryers. Then again, I did watch Channel 5’s Wetherspoons vs Toby Carvery: Which is Better? on Saturday night, which featured a 15-minute segment where they extensively compared the carpets in both. So maybe they are on to something.