Season 5 of Downton Abbey, as we’ve been told, is all about change. Judging by the overnight ratings for the show, whose second episode aired last night on the UK’s ITV, the shifts moving deeper into the 1920s haven’t looked too postive. But, first impressions can be somewhat misleading. The premiere episode of the period drama last Sunday drew 8.43M viewers and a 38% share in the overnights — the lowest such figures for a debut since the series launch episode in 2010. When the overnights came out even lower for yesterday’s second episode (8.09M viewers/35.1 share), I called executive producer Gareth Neame to get his take on the declines. While Neame allowed that the ratings are down, the Live +7s for the debut episode paint a brighter picture. With the consolidated numbers now in for the week, the S5 premiere episode tallied 10.7M viewers, a drop on 2013’s 11.95M. Audience share, however, was a 41, the 2nd best for a kick-off after last year’s 42 — and a clue to the current state of viewing habits in the UK.
Neame pointed out that last year’s opener had the hook of the aftermath of Matthew Crawley’s untimely demise at the end of S3 to ensure giant figures. Fortunately, he said, Downton‘s share is still in the same territory as 2013. But he allows, “We all got rather addicted to the sort of crack of 12 million audiences and overnights of 10 million.” While they’re still pulling “an incredibly high rating,” Neame notes that this year the UK is “tracking an overall decline across primetime viewing on all channels.” The issues across all shows have to do with fewer people watching live, he says, “and becoming more and more accustomed” to catching up on tablets and the like. “Those devices are not captured by ratings at all. We’re following a trend for lower audiences for live broadcast audience figures.” The weather has also been a factor. “We’ve had a particulary fine September. That doesn’t help with viewing. We haven’t changed into the normal autumn thing with people settling down with the sense of evenings drawing in.”
Looking at overnight figures for the likes of The X Factor, now with Simon Cowell back on the judging panel on Saturdays and Sundays, and Doctor Who, with 12th Time Lord Peter Capaldi on Saturdays, there have been some ups and downs compared to 2013. Even with a drop in numbers, Downton remains ITV’s highest-rated drama and was the 2nd most watched program on UK television last night. The one show that appears to be continually rising is the BBC’s Wednesday night cooking competition, The Great British Bake Off.
Reviews for Downton this season have been largely positive thus far, so maybe it’ll just take a cool wind blowing off the North York Moors to draw folks to hearth and home on a Sunday night. That, or an internet connection by way of 1924.