The nation’s changing viewing habits over the decades

Smiling young couple in the 1960s, sitting on a sofa with a glass of beer, watching a portable black

It was in the 1960s that more people in the UK had TVs than those who didn't - Credit: Getty Images

One thing that can really tell us a lot about the history of a nation is their changing viewing habits over the years.

This year will witness the 100th birthday of the BBC. The BBC began broadcasting TV programmes in 1936 while ITV, the first commercial TV channel, started in 1955. On the day of ITV’s launch, many potential viewers were distracted by an unusually dramatic storyline on the BBC radio soap The Archers in which leading character Grace Archer (Ysanne Churchman) was mortally wounded while attempting to rescue some horses from a blazing barn. This was almost certainly a deliberate tactic to help undermine ITV’s launch.

It was only as the 1950s moved into the 1960s, however, that the number of UK households in possession of a television began to outnumber those without. Coronation Street started on ITV in 1960. It was very nearly called ‘Florizel Street,’ a harder name to pronounce or spell.

In 1964, BBC Two started. A massive power failure at Battersea Power Station turned the new channel’s opening night into a fiasco. New children’s show Play School ended up being the first programme broadcast on the channel the next day. By now over 80% of households owned TVs. By 1974, the figure would be above 95%.

The highest audience ever recorded for any UK TV broadcast was for the 1966 World Cup Final. 32.3 million people tuned in to watch England beat West Germany on 30th July 1966. It is interesting that even then around 40% of the UK population were not watching. A sizeable number of people, not all of them outside England, clearly had no interest in the outcome of the match at all. Some, of course, would have been listening on the radio or watching (and, in a few cases, playing in) the match in person themselves.

Most of the nation’s most-watched TV programmes have had some connection with sport (football World Cups), Royalty (Royal Weddings, the 1969 Royal Family documentary, Diana’s 1995 Martin Bashir interview and funeral) or soap opera. The Christmas Day 1986 episode of EastEnders in which Den (the late Leslie Grantham) presented Angie (Anita Dobson) with her divorce papers as a cruel ‘Christmas surprise’ trick received 30.15 million viewers. I dimly remember watching it myself. If you’re at least a few years over 40 chances are you do too.

The most-watched episode of Coronation Street incidentally came exactly one year later when the much-loved character, Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) left the soap on Christmas Day 1987.

Some figures are surprising. The Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 did not get huge ratings in the UK presumably because it occurred in the middle of the night. In contrast, the safe return of the unlucky Apollo 13 astronauts was watched by 28.60 million Britons in April 1970. Nothing else received ratings as high as this during the entire 1970s. Yet I’ve never spoken to anyone who remembers watching it.

Similarly, ice skaters Torvill and Dean’s 1994 attempted comeback is now largely forgotten. But the show about that got much higher ratings at the time than their famous victorious 1984 win at Sarajevo. There are other oddities too. Even allowing the fact that it was a very popular show, it now seems odd that an episode of Australian soap Neighbours got 21.16 million viewers in February 1990. The episode description reads: ‘Nick becomes hero of the hour. Des's plan backfires.’ It was clearly not even a particularly unusual or special episode. Yet only a handful of programmes have ever received as many viewers in the years since.

It is easy to forget that vast numbers once watched shows like the Royal Variety Performance, Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Miss World. TV ratings tend to be lower these days as audiences are often thinly spread across a large number of channels. The nation’s changing viewing habits over the decades nevertheless provide us with an intriguing insight into our ever-evolving fashions and tastes.