ITV: Mix of ‘firework’ and ‘bonfire’ content needed to acquire, keep viewers

Until recently there hasn’t been much transparency from major streamers about how most shows on their platforms perform. Now data out of the UK reveals small audiences for the bulk of content on SVODs. But broadcaster ITV explained how companies need a mix of so-called big audience “firework” and long-tail “bonfire” content to attract and keep viewers.

For instance, when looking at highest-rated single episodes on Netflix over the course of a year, up to 80% of all episodes on Netflix are viewed by less than half a million people in the UK. That includes documentaries and factual programming but excludes children's content and feature film.

The stat is one of many revealed by ITV Insights Group, the analytics division for the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster ITV, and taken from Barb, the UK’s official and independent currency for measuring TV. 

The figures from Barb show that Netflix is the dominant SVOD in the UK by some margin, meaning that other episodic content on Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, AppleTV+, Paramount+ and more likely receive even lower per episode ratings than Netflix.

Netflix only agreed to join Barb in October 2022 just ahead of launch of its advertising supported tier. Previously, the streaming giant had released snapshots of its viewing data, highlighting the success of its most popular shows. In an effort for more transparency into performance, last December Netflix released the first of its twice-yearly Engagement Report disclosing hours viewed for titles (among those watched for more than 50,000 hours) over a six-month period. The first report spanned over 18,000 titles and Netflix said it represented 99% of viewing on the SVOD. And while a step forward after long shielding information for competitive purposes, some industry observers felt the Excel spreadsheet and data dump format left something to be desired in terms of ease for gleaning insights and comparisons.

Disney has been a Barb member since July 2021 and Amazon Prime Video signed on to Barb in March 2024 to coincide with its ad-supported subscription launch.

“Put simply, for the first time, we can measure streamers on a like for like basis,” said Neil Mortensen, Director of ITV Insights Group, speaking at the Sheffield Documentary Festival.

“UK viewers watch on average four hours of TV a day,” Mortensen said. “That holds as true today as it did a decade ago. What has changed is that viewing time is now split among the main broadcasters and international streamers.”

ITV BARB UK viewing graph c1
UK consumers are splitting their viewing time among broadcasters and streamers.  (ITV/Barb)

ITV itself is in the second year of a major transformation project to turn online catch-up service ITV Hub into “a real destination” for live and VOD content. ITVX launched in December 2022 fuelled by £160 million ($202m) of dedicated budget per year for shows alongside an annual budget of over £1 billion ($1.26bn) which ITV spends on content (original and licenced). It currently has 22,000 hours on its platform.

With the vast majority of revenue coming from advertising across ITVX and network channels Mortensen explained that it was in the company’s interest to understand how its content performed in comparison to streaming rivals.

“Overnight ratings don’t necessarily tell us that much about the success or otherwise of a new program anymore,” he said. “In an age of virtually unlimited choice there are very few shows that have big audiences.”

He also shared a number of slides based on Barb research over the period May 2023 to April 2024. Figures show that in the period The Book of Boba Fett launched on Disney+ with just under 1 million viewers, Reacher debuted on Prime Video with just under half a million, and the first episode of cooking show Is It Cake? landed on Netflix with 227,000 -  but after a month they were all exhibiting the same audience figures. 

ITV BARB UK viewing graph 2
Overnight ratings are no longer the best or only indicator of new show success.  (ITV/Barb)


Instant hit vs long-tail content 

Mortensen differentiated between ‘fireworks’ and ‘bonfires’. The former is a show like Britain’s Got Talent, the reality show with recorded and live elements that streams on ITVX and airs on ITV1.

“Every episode brings a huge spike of audiences into the service but there is no long tail for the show.”

A ‘bonfire’ is a different type of show in that it attracts far smaller audiences per episode but continues to draw viewers throughout the year.

“The very long tail of SVOD content means that very few episodes have big audiences,” he said.

Mortensen said that ITV wasn’t necessarily concerned whether a show was an instant but short-lived hit or exhibited slow burn on-demand since they could sell advertising around each.

“What the linear universe and the streamers really need are both fireworks and bonfires for the acquisition of viewers and for the retention of them.”

He noted that broadcasters with linear and streaming services can use recommendation engines to direct viewers tuning into a live ‘firework’ event (like a sports match) to watch another show on-demand.

The executive displayed a series of Top 10 charts measuring total viewing of the most popular episodes for shows cumulatively over the year May 2023 to April 2024 in the UK.

Scripted programming dominated the Netflix Top 10. In the UK, the best performing episode of any series across any genre (excluding children’s) in the period was British drama Fool Me Once (11.9 million viewers) with a David Beckham documentary in third (7.8m) and Baby Reindeer fourth at 7.1m. 

ITV BARB UK viewing graph 3.j
Source: Barb/AdvantEdge/As Viewed cumulative Audience: All Devices (ITV/Barb)


“Each episode has had a full year to accumulate and grow, so even in a year, there are very few big shows,” Mortensen observed. “Netflix is by far the biggest SVOD player in the UK, dwarfing the rest, but even up to 80% of Netflix shows don't deliver over half a million viewers in a year.”

Comparable figures for Disney+ in the UK showed Star Wars and Marvel universes sharing the top three spaces (episodes of Ahsoka, Loki and Secret Invasion totaling 4.1m views each over a year) with The Mandalorian in tenth (2.1m). An award-winner like The Bear managed 2.5m viewers over the year. 

ITV BARB DIsney UK viewing graph 4
Source: Barb/AdvantEdge/As Viewed cumulative Audience: All Devices (ITV/BARB)

The most popular episode of an Amazon Prime Video show in the year to April ’24 was Reacher (5.7m) followed by The Grand Tour (5.5m) and Fallout (4.7m). 

ITV BARB Prime Video UK viewing graph 5
Source: Barb/AdvantEdge/As Viewed cumulative Audience: All Devices (ITV/Barb)

Shows broadcast on ITV and BBC TV by comparison tend to attract greater audiences than streaming services. 

Drama and entertainment made up the entirety of the Top 10 across ITV channels, with an equal mix of returning shows and new programs. Drama Mr. Bates Vs the Post Office which generated national headlines when it aired in January was the top show by some margin (14.5 million). Nearly 11 million watched the most popular episode of reality show I'm A Celebrity

ITV BARB UK viewing graph 6
Source: Barb/AdvantEdge/As Viewed cumulative Audience: All Devices (ITV/BARB)

The BBC’s Sir David Attenborough fronted nature doc Planet Earth was its top-rated episode across genres (11.2m). In second was live music contest Eurovision (10.9m) and it was still generating 8.5m viewers for tenth placed factual entertainment show Antiques Roadshow.

ITV BARB BBC UK viewing graph 7
Source: Barb/AdvantEdge/As Viewed cumulative Audience: All Devices (ITV/BARB)

Mortensen acknowledged that audience size was just one metric to judge show performance. Streamers, including ITV via ITVX, are able to identify how people started a show, how many completed it, and when they exited a show, to drive commissioning and marketing decisions.

“It means commissioners and producer teams wanting to understand how a program is performing have to be patient because sometimes it is weeks if not months before we can make a standard judgment.”