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What was it about the BBC's Bodyguard?


March is a bit late to offer up a retrospective on the previous year, but I’ve wanted to write about what I think was the most interesting TV event of 2018, for a while.

For the me the most interesting event was Bodyguard. This was a BBC 1 drama starring Keeley Hawes and Ricard Madden. Keeley is currently one the UK’s best actresses and is in everything that Oliva Coleman isn’t. Richard Madden is best known for Game of Thrones where he was last seen being dispatched during the Red Wedding. The first thing to note about Bodyguard is the lack of the definite article, removed to avoid any confusion with the 1992 film “The Bodyguard” starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. 

Bodyguard, the one without the "the", is about the Home Secretary (UK’s minster for the interior) played by Keeley and her personal protection officer played by Richard. But the interesting point is not the twisted plot or the multi-layer plot and conflicted characters. The interesting point is just how record breakingly popular it was.

It is worth pointing out that while Bodyguard was a BBC drama it was made by ITV Studios, showing a working collaboration between the UK’s two largest broadcasters. Though the BBC may have ordered Bodyguard from World Productions before it was bought by ITV Studios. As both ITV and the BBC strengthen and grow their studios, we are likely to see more of this cooperation. Though ITV usually likes to keep the best for itself. When ITV bought the production company with the rights to the Voice in the UK, it quickly brought the show over from BBC 1 to ITV..

ITV have sold the worldwide streaming rights to Netflix, so, for those of you outside the UK, that is where you will find it. Netflix were brought in as an investor in the early stages of production. This is becoming more common, in order to fund these drama, which are in the region of £5-6million an episode, international distribution needs to be secured up front.

The most interesting and important fact about Bodyguard is that, outside of the UK World Cup matches, it was the most watch programme in the UK in 2018. With an audience of 17.1 million viewers the final episode was also the most watched drama since records began in 2002. This is the largest audience recorded for a TV programme outside of sporting and national events since 2010.

If your wondering about those World Cup matches, ITV's broadcast of England's World Cup semi-final against Croatia, drew an average audience of 24.3 million. Though nearly all of that viewing, as you would expect, was live. Where as 39% Bodyguard’s viewing was time shifted.

Bodyguard is also BBC iPlayer’s most successful box set ever, where it currently has over 42.6 million requests. That is an average of 7.1 million per episode. 

It is worth digging into these numbers, 61% of the audience watched the final episode live on TV, 32% watched the final episode time-shifted on TV and 7% watched it on another device (PC, mobile, phone). Though these numbers only include people who watched it within the first 28 days.

What is interesting is how the split between time-shifted and live changed during the course of the series. Episode one had 6.7 million overnight views, but 10.8 million views on iPlayer, where as the final and most popular episode had 10.4 million overnight views but only had 4.8 million views on BBC iPlayer. The success of Bodyguard drove people to catch-up via iPlayer and then switched to watching the show live each week.

The question I have to ask is why did was Bodyguard so successful? The writer Jed Mercurio is a master of suspense and plot twists but was it really that good, was it really the best drama since 2002? I’m not so sure. What was different about Bodyguard?

First off, every view was measured. With the BARB 4 screen survey every view on every device was measured for 28 days. However the more traditional overnight figure was still the best since the Christmas episode of Dr Who in 2008.

"we long for shows that create a national shared experience"

Catch-up continues to grow in popularity and catch-up draws in and retains a larger audience. Bodyguard, like many dramas, would have been difficult to pick up if you missed the first episode, but the catch-up service enable people to catch-up with what they missed, enabling the show to grow its audience over time, building up to that record breaking final episode.

One additional theory I have is that, in a time of so many viewing options and audience fragmentation, we long for shows that create a national shared experience. Shows that drive a watercooler moment. Major sporting event certainly do this, but not everyone is into sport and a drama series, drawn out over multiple weeks, has time to build momentum and an audience.

So I predict that as live audience slowly decline as viewers switch to the convenience of on-demand services, we will still see break out drama series that create record breaking live audiences as we crave a common shared experience.

Despite the hype and the continued success of subscription VOD services like Netflix, the ability to combine linear and on-demand audience means that the UK's large broadcasters will continue to deliver the largest audiences and largest national shared experiences.


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