StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

UK Viewers: What Do They Watch? Top Factual Programs, 2011 YTD

Brits and Americans are two peoples separated by lots more than a common language.

  • For a start, take the television viewing preferences of the world’s #1 and #2 English-speaking television markets.

A friend shared a recent a top level report on the ratings of UK Factual and Documentary programs broadcast this year through the end of July.

Here are the shows, with our Takeaways and Comments below:

1The Apprentice: The FinalBBC 117.810239Elimination
2Big Fat Gypsy WeddingsCH415.89050Obs Doc Series
3Moving On: The Walton SextupletsITV111.36499Obs Doc Series
4StrangewaysITV110.96267Prison Doc Series
5CountryfileBBC 110.35911Magazine
6The Duke At 90BBC 19.55462Bio
7Richard Hammond’s Journey to the CentreBBC 19.45389Science
8My Big Fat Royal Gypsy WeddingCH49.35321Obs Doc
9Human PlanetBBC 19.25284Sci / Nat Hist
10Prince Philip At 90ITV18.95110Bio
11AtlantisBBC 18.95105Docudrama
12Long Lost FamilyITV18.85027Doc Series
13The Corrie YearsITV18.64936Popular History
14Egypt’s Lost CitiesBBC 18.64917Archaeology
15Terry Wogan’s IrelandBBC 18.34752Travel
16Four of A KindITV18.24715Obs Doc Series
17Embarrassing BodiesCH48.14618Science Series
18Children’s HospitalITV17.94499Obs Doc Series
19The Biggest LoserITV17.94492Elimination
20The Unforgettable …ITV17.74426Bio Strand
21Jimmy’s Food FactoryBBC 17.74415Lifestyle / Sci
22Babies Behind BarsITV17.64360Obs Doc Series
23Traffic CopsBBC 17.54306Clip Show
24Poms in ParadiseITV17.54292Travel / Lifestyle
25Inside the Human BodyBBC 17.54271Science Series
26Kate in CanadaITV17.54280Curr Affs Special
27Strictly KosherITV17.44266Obs Doc Series
28The DalesITV17.44226Obs Doc Series
29The Great British WeatherBBC 17.44237Science Series
30The Lakes (Series 2)ITV17.34147Travel Series
31Britain’s Royal WeddingsBBC 17.24105History Specials
32Famous, Rich + In the Slums w/Comic ReliefBBC 17.24101Travel / Doc
33MadagascarBBC 27.14063Travel / Nat Hist
34The Betty Driver StoryITV17.14028Popular History
36William & Kate – In Their WordsITV16.93951Curr Affs Special
37Motorway CopsBBC 16.93950Cop Doc Series
38Secret Mediterranean w/ Trevor McDonaldITV16.93917Travel
39Wonders of the UniverseBBC 26.83905Science
40One Born Every MinuteCH46.83889Obs Doc Series


  • The list is wonderfully eclectic!
  • The ratings are huge compared with U.S. audiences for comparable programs
    • There is a thriving UK appetite for quality docs of many genres and formats: observational, hosted, classic big Blue Chip, high end Lifestyle, Travel, and so on
  • On the topic of Blue Chip:
    • The list includes a number big budget Science, Natural History, History and Archaeology series.
    • Many of these categories are close to extinct in the equivalent U.S. Top 50-100 lists
    • Cable channels that once did well with them, like Discovery, History, and even Nat Geo, have shifted away from Blue Chip films that are based on deep specialization in their subject matter, and towards character-driven Reality series
  • Popular, edgy Science series like Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies still attract big UK audiences
  • It was a royal wedding year, so it’s not surprising to see William & Kate join wedding-themed programs, like the irresistible Gypsy Weddings, amongst the top performers
    • Prince Philip’s big, old grumpy 90th birthday interviews earned a couple of extra top slots for the Royal category
  • The list is very British
    • Exceptions that we noticed are: # 1 The Apprentice is a U.S. format; and #22 Babies Behind Bars is a U.S. acquisition.
  • There is a lot of nostalgia: the royal stuff, countryside lifestyle magazines, pop culture anniversary specials (for Coronation Street) and so on
  • Hosted programs are strong performers, despite their often reported burial.
  • Travel remains a top performing Factual category, although there is no current long-running breakout travel hit like Wish You Were Here
  • For all the chatter about them at recent doc conferences, we expected to see more top-rated ‘fixed rig’ shows inspired by Big Brother, like our favorite One Born Every Minute

BTW, the top-rated program on all UK television was the BBC’s 5.5 hour Royal Wedding telecast, which earned 13.6 million average viewers, a 24 Rating and 63! Share.

Apologies to our UK readers if this is all old hat.  It’s refreshing stuff to readers located in most of the rest of the world.


From a “Preferred Producer”

The interesting thing about Gypsy Wedding like Swamp People is that it speaks to a global fascination with “internal” and “within our borders” subcultures.  The foreigner within, the enemy within, the stranger within.  Same with Hoarders and crime stuff like “the murderer next door.” Personally I think the quickly changing world has made everyone question their core values and roots.  They are wondering who they are and what they share with people and ideas they formerly thought were “outsiders.”  They are realizing they are them, we are them, same with all the Zombie stuff as well.  It’s interesting!

And a “Preferred U.S. Programming Executive”

Peter, this is interesting. It would be even more so if we knew the top-rated programs among the advertisers’ target audiences, adults 18-49 or 25-54, or whatever the analogous British target is. you might see a very different list.