BBC1 has lowest audience figures for 16 years as Saturday night drama experiment fails

Out of 17,561 employees in the BBC's salary band structure, some 1,532 receive more than their stated salary band

When the BBC unveiled plans to put drama at the heart of its Saturday night schedule, executives hailed it as a bold new experiment.

It has not paid off. BBC One’s primetime Saturday audience for the first half of this year fell to its lowest level since records began, according to figures seen by one newspaper.

Troy, a £16 million historical epic co-produced with Netflix, drew an average audience of just 2.3 million viewers

A series of lacklustre entertainment shows contributed to the malaise as the corporation struggled to find a format to compete with ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent.

But it is the failure of the BBC’s two dramas, Hard Sun and Troy: Fall of a City that could prompt a rethink of the Saturday night strategy.

Troy, a £16 million historical epic co-produced with Netflix, drew an average audience of just 2.3 million viewers. Hard Sun, a thriller about two detectives who discover that the earth is about to be destroyed, had an audience of 2.9 million. Both were panned by critics, with one describing Hard Sun as “almost impressively bad”.

The BBC’s head of content, Charlotte Moore, launched the Tom Hardy series, Taboo, last year as the first show to “reinvent BBC drama in a new slot on Saturday nights”. The idea was to cater for an audience used to bingeing on drama series from Netflix, Amazon and Sky Atlantic, as more people choose to stay in at the weekends.

Hard Sun, a thriller about two detectives who discover that the earth is about to be destroyed, had an audience of 2.9 million

Earlier in the evening, the entertainment shows All Together Now and Wedding Day Winners both fared worse than last year’s talent competition, Let It Shine.

Even programmes that could usually be relied upon to deliver solid ratings have struggled. The second series of All Round to Mrs Brown’s Boys was 2.5 million viewers down on series one, while Casualty’s audience dropped by 11 per cent year-on-year to an average of 4.7 million.

Across the board, BBC One’s output in the first five months of the year was down nine per cent across the schedule and 14 per cent in primetime when compared to the same period in 2017.

BBC sources pointed out that the figures do not take into account catch-up viewing on iPlayer, and that the BBC remains Britain’s most watched channel, with a 21.6 per cent share of the audience during the first half of this year (ITV’s share was 17.4 per cent).

But experts said the Saturday night figures showed how difficult it is for broadcasters to find hits these days. “Saturday nights are the holy grail of TV schedulers. The problem seems to be the fragmented nature of the TV market – family viewing on Saturday nights is so much less of a thing these days and the successful entertainment formats are very old,” said the Radio Times’s Ben Dowell.

The “surprisingly grim” nature of the BBC’s Saturday dramas also sits oddly with the light entertainment shows that precede them, Dowell said. “It all goes to show that there are really no easy answers on what this audience wants on a Saturday night. Perhaps there is no answer, or perhaps the answer is just Netflix.”

A BBC spokesman said: “BBC One is the most watched channel in the UK and the proud winner of three Channel of the Year awards. BBC One brings the nation together and takes risks with a range of high quality, distinctive programmes where ratings are not the only measure of success.

“In a digital age, BBC iPlayer complements the schedules and gives audiences even more choice to watch what they want when they want.

“The Saturday night drama slot allows us to bring a different tone to the channel and experiment, take risks and push boundaries with original new drama. We will continue to showcase drama on BBC One in this later Saturday night slot.”

The BBC’s end-of-year ratings will be boosted by the World Cup, with England’s game against Panama drawing an audience of 14.1 million.