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Why Sunday TV is now prime-time

By Mark Andrews | In-depth | Published:

Now more than ever, Sunday night has become the home of hit dramas with whopping viewing figures – as this weekend’s return of Poldark will demonstrate.

The remake of 1970s costume drama Poldark, now starring Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson, has been a big ratings hit

Talk of Sunday night television, and what comes to mind? Last of the Summer Wine, That's Life and maybe, if you were feeling daring, The South Bank Show?

Well it seems our viewing habits have changed a bit since the days of talking dogs and smutty vegetable displays. The past 10 years has seen Sunday nights becoming one of the most hotly contested slots of the week, with both the BBC and ITV pouring million into glossy drama series.

Suranne Jones starred as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

This week's finale of quirky period drama Gentleman Jack pulled in 4.7 million viewers, making it the second most viewed BBC Sunday series of the year so far.

But while the BBC will be delighted with the popularity of the series, based on the extensive diaries of a maverick lesbian industrialist in 19th century Halifax, it still falls far short of the Corporation's other big hit of 2019. Line of Duty, a gritty drama about corruption in a fictitious Midland police force, pulled in 13.2 million viewers at its peak – making it the highest-rated TV programme of the year to date.

Line of Duty has topped this year's TV ratings so far

And while Line of Duty, by Cannock-born Jed Mercurio, ultimately won the battle of the Sunday-night ratings, it was given a very good run for its money by a tried-and-trusted favourite: Britain's Got Talent. The finale of the long-running talent show pulled in an average of 8.5 million viewers, and at one point peaked at 10.6 million viewers.

So why has Sunday night become such a key battleground in the fight for TV audience share?

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Part of the reason is likely to be the rise of catch-up television services, which mean that the days of people organising their days around TV schedules are, in many households, long gone. While this has seen viewing figures fall away for busier times of the week, Sunday is still a time when the family is most likely to be at home together.

Black Country TV expert Chris Perry says: "Most people stay at home on Sunday. Sunday night has always been a big night for television, and continues to be."

But the profile of the average TV viewer is also changing. Research by TV Licensing in 2017 found that the under-25 age group was far less likely to spend its spare time watching TV than the rest of the population. The 16-24 age group spent 30 per of its spare time watching TV, compared to 40 per cent of the adult population

Old school – Sunday night TV has changed since the days of That's Life

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Moreover, the over-65 age group watches three times as much television as the 16-24 age group, older viewers spending 344 minutes a day watching TV compared to 114 minutes for the younger generation.

Pipa Doubtfire, director of revenue management at TV Licensing, says: "Young people spend less time watching live, with 12- to 15-year olds citing YouTube and BBC iPlayer as their preferred TV services.

"Audiences over 65 however, are watching more live TV than ever, with average viewing time increasing steadily over the past four years."

Given this trend, it is perhaps not surprising that the lengthy, period dramas which have been a staple of Sunday night television since the 1970s, are the shows which are holding up as other programmes' viewing figures decline.

Poldark Series 5 | Launch Trailer - BBC

The BBC's revival of 1970s period drama Poldark, with Aidan Turner in the title role, is a prime example. While the remake did not come near the 15 million viewers who watched the original series, starring Robin Ellis, it did manage a peak audience of 8.8 million, making it one of the biggest hits of recent years.

Poldark's audience share took a bit of a hit for the second series in 2016, when it went up against ITV's royal drama Victoria, which attracted eight million viewers for its opening episode. However the BBC won the ratings war earlier this year, when the third series of Victoria was trounced by Line of Duty.

Call the Midwife, based on the books of former Dudley resident Jennifer Worth, has been another ratings hit. The first series of the drama, set in London's East End in the 1950s, attracted an average audience of 10.61 million viewers, and the eighth series which ended in March this year, managed over nine million.

Downton Abbey, essentially a big-budget remake of Upstairs, Downstairs, has been another major hit of recent years, running for six series, peaking at nearly 12 million viewers in 2012.

A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant as disgraced former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, was another Sunday-night hit, pulling in 4.6 million viewers.

Certainly, Sunday night has become a key battleground in the battleground for TV ratings. However, for those who still hanker for the days of Foggy, Compo and Clegg, Last of the Summer Wine is still regularly shown on the Yesterday nostalgia channel.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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