There were a few raised eyebrows earlier this month when BBC One's sober crime drama McMafia was greenlit for a second series – it aired to mixed but broadly positive reviews at the beginning of 2018, but the overnight ratings were far from stellar.
Launching to a suitably impressive 5.6 million on New Year's Day, by later episodes it had lost almost half its audience, with a low of 3.4 million tuning in for episode 7 of 8 on February 4. Yet despite the lukewarm reception to the first series, the BBC are pushing ahead with a follow-up – and that's thanks almost entirely to the show's performance on iPlayer.
McMafia is the fourth most popular drama title, by peak episode, on BBC iPlayer ever, making it one of the most popular shows of all time on the streaming platform. The series opener is also the most watched content on BBC iPlayer so far this year, outperforming every single episode of EastEnders.
For years now, we've heard TV producers insist that overnights – the initial, next-day ratings figures – are becoming less and less important (usually as a response to accusations that their show is underperforming). Catch-up and on-demand services, we've been told, are changing the way people "consume content".
But until recently, overnights have still had a part to play, if only in the perception of how a TV show is being received. Let's face it, most of us are less interested in whether a series "more than doubled its audience in the final consolidated ratings, if you take into account live viewing plus catch-up in the seven days that followed".
That's technical, and dull. The overnights were still the big, sexy headlines and still the best yardstick by which to measure whether a series was considered a hit or a flop. If a show failed to score in the overnights, the odds were it would be axed. Building audience on catch-up felt like a small and hollow victory.
Now, though, we're finally starting to see the beginnings of real change: a genuine and concerted move away from traditional means of audience measurement as ways of judging success. It's not just how and when we watch TV that's changing – the success of an ever-expanding BBC iPlayer is now changing how a show's success is measured, and subsequently how future projects are commissioned.
McMafia is one example of that, another is the Eve Myles-starring drama Keeping Faith. Starring Myles as a solicitor whose husband goes missing, the series broke an iPlayer record this year, earning 8 million requests even though (or perhaps because) it's so far only aired on BBC One Wales.
Keeping Faith proved so popular on the streaming platform that the BBC kept all eight episodes online for longer than originally planned, granting a Bank Holiday extension, and a second series has already been commissioned.
The headline-grabbing show is considered a hit, not just in Wales but across the entire country, and it hasn't even aired on BBC One proper yet. McMafia proved that, in a post-iPlayer world, a show can underperform in the overnights and still emerge a winner. Keeping Faith proved that it didn't even need a traditional broadcast at all.
In a landscape irrevocably changed by the arrival of Netflix, the BBC is having to look more and more to on-demand as a means of measuring success, and it's wisely investing more in iPlayer as a way of combating its streaming revivals.
Last Christmas, the Beeb brought some of the year's biggest hits back to streaming – from the latest series of Peaky Blinders and Line of Duty to vintage highlights like the first series of The Mighty Boosh and classic EastEnders festive outings. It was their most obviously Netflix-inspired move to date, and it might not be the last.
Broadcast has reported on plans to "turbocharge iPlayer with a greater volume of full-series box sets". It's no stretch to suggest that the commissioners at the BBC are likely to have more of an eye than ever before on the eight-to-ten episode prestige-drama model.
Ex-Doctor Who boss Steven Moffat has even acknowledged that the day might come when an entire series of the BBC's sci-fi stalwart drops on iPlayer all at once.
"I think television is changing massively," Moffat told Digital Spy last year. "I think the idea of dropping a whole series and letting people find it, letting people watch it and binge it... I think it's coming. I don't think there's any doubt about that."
The extent to which the public service broadcaster can go down this path and properly rival Netflix might be limited by opposition from independent production companies, who want to be properly compensated for a longer iPlayer window.
As the BBC itself states on the iPlayer site, making shows available for longer than 30 days would "cost more and mean there would be less money for making new programmes" – so any extension of the catch-up period would require significant negotiations.
It's clearly an avenue that's being pursued, though, both via iPlayer and – if the rumours are to be believed – via a new uber-streaming platform that the BBC are developing alongside ITV and Channel 4.
Whatever the future holds for BBC drama, we've already reached the point where a TV show can underperform on a linear channel, or even not air at all, and still be considered a hit. In the age of Netflix, it's becoming increasingly obvious that broadcast TV – and yes, the overnights – really aren't as important as they used to be.
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