The prospect of filling the Sunday night slot vacated by Downton Abbey might be daunting enough for the cast of the new ITV drama Victoria, even without the fact that the BBC are planning to play out one of their most popular programmes at exactly the same time.
But ITV bosses say they are hoping to steal the thunder of the second series of the BBC’s Poldark, by rushing out two episodes of their new biopic following the life of an 18-year-old Queen Victoria before Aidan Turner whips off his shirt in the first episode of the BBC’s Cornish drama.
While Poldark, which was seen by audiences in excess of nine million viewers during its first series, returns to BBC One next Sunday night, ITV has scheduled a double bill of Victoria, which stars Jenna Coleman as the young monarch, tonight and tomorrow, in a bid to get viewers hooked on the period drama.
Kevin Lygo, the director of television at ITV, said he hoped that by going out a week before the BBC, audiences would be more likely to tune in to the tale of the young Victoria’s ascension to the throne.
He said: It was important for us to get in before Poldark. I would have felt very nervous about going head to head. But we can get two out before Poldark starts, so the viewers have a glorious choice. Ours is new, and they’ve got a bit more momentum, but we’ll steal their thunder by coming out a bit earlier.
While previous ITV chiefs have railed against the BBC, claiming that the corporation should not schedule similar programmes at the same time as ITV’s big-budget commissions, Mr Lygo insisted that he did not begrudge the broadcaster airing Poldark at the same time as Victoria.
Indeed, the BBC published the date of the first episode of Winston Graham’s Cornish drama several months in advance, to avoid accusations that it had tried to ambush its commercial rival.
The clash has an added frisson, because both shows are made by Mammoth Screen, and executives at the production company are said to have appealed to both broadcasters to try to separate the programmes in the schedules.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Mr Lygo said: If we could have avoided it we would. But we couldn’t. We had to put it out this autumn, for all sorts of boring contractual reasons, and they put Poldark out.
Why would you expect them to think, ‘Oh we’ll help ITV out and put something on that we don’t believe in, or something dissimilar against it’? Similarly for us, you can’t run away from an area like Sunday night drama, even if the BBC is very strong we should put something up against it.
When ITV and the BBC screen dramas at the same time, the commercial broadcaster tends to lose out in the ratings, as viewers tend to record the ITV programme and then play it back, fast forwarding through the adverts.
Mr Lygo said that there had been a decrease in overnight ratings – which capture those who watch the programme as it goes out live – in the past five years, and said he would be happy with six million viewers for Victoria.
He said: The horrible reality is that ratings are so much lower than they were just five years ago, and there are still as many people watching television. We’d both settle for six million on overnight ratings for those shows.
There are more than 22 million people watching television on Sunday nights, so we both ought to get more than six million if the shows are good. We’re going to find out in a couple of weeks.
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