It came as something of a jolt to the system to be confronted with the news that a recent episode of Blue Peter had failed to record a single viewer when it had been broadcast.
A multi-layered jolt at that.
Firstly, that initial hit of nostalgia: wow, Blue Peter! Mark Curry, Yvette Fielding, Katy Hill, Tracy Island, stickyback plastic, charity appeals and the totaliser, tortoises hibernating… grew up with that, always watched it, even if it was a bit naff at times. Like that old great aunt that you can’t help but love.
Secondly, that registering of just how old you are: god is that still going? Of course it’s still going, it’s Blue Peter, it’s immortal. But it really has been years since I watched it.
Thirdly, actually taking in the news that it’s broadcast an episode to no one: zero viewers is bad isn’t it? In no situation, other than perhaps an ISIS propaganda video, is zero viewers a good thing.
Fourthly, trying to think how this has happened: why is no one watching it? Oh, it’s on CBBC these days? I thought it was still on BBC One? Is CBBC a digital only channel? Does that matter these days when everyone watches everything on YouTube? Why am I so out of touch with how the kids consume content? Did I really just use the phrase ‘the kids’? I’m going to start saying ‘groovy’ unironically soon. Oh god oh god oh god.
And then fifthly, the realisation of what could happen: hang on, if zero viewers is bad, then that could mean... could it mean… they might stop making Blue Peter? Blue Peter might die?
And then sixthly, a weird feeling as you take in the first five points: it’s been aeons since you watched the thing, you’ll never watch it again, and yet you feel a bit sad. What will happen to the tortoises? Will they just put them in a box to hibernate and then never open it up? Will the garden just become overgrown and turn into a crack den? Did Percy Thrower do all that work for nothing? Why does everything good and wholesome have to die? What is the point of anything anymore? WHY DIDN’T WE DO SOMETHING BEFORE IT WAS TOO LATE.
Hush now, and soothe yourself with a photo of Gethin Jones, Konnie Huq, Zoe Salmon and Andy Akinwolere.
So how exactly did it come to this?
Well, before we go any further, it’s worth analysing the ‘zero viewers’ thing. Firstly, this was a repeat of a show, which aired at 2:30pm on Tuesday 13 June – i.e. at a time when its entire target audience (other than those faking a ‘tummy ache’ to miss sports day) was at school. And it only registered a zero among households with a BARB box (the things which track a sample of the audience’s viewing habits, in order to guestimate viewing figures), so for all we know there might have been a few undocumented ones out there. Additionally, the BBC was keen to point out that another repeat in a different time slot had an audience of 46,000 (and a 10% share of children aged 6-12), whilst also being viewed 39,000 times on iPlayer.
However, to answer point four – yes, the show is now only broadcast on the digital only channel CBBC, and now pulls in just 83,000 viewers for each new show. At its peak, fully eight million viewers would tune in to watch the show, while just 10 years ago it was shown three times a week to an average of 917,000 viewers.
The key year in its decline seems to been 2012, when – then still on BBC One, it was reduced from two episodes a week to just one, with the show going out first on the CBBC channel on Thursdays before being repeated the following day on the main channel. However, in December of that year, the repeat was quietly dropped, after it was determined that 93% of its target audience was now watching the dedicated CBBC channel – and that was it: Blue Peter gone forever from the main channels.
Now, you take a look at the website for the show and it’s just like any other generic show page on the BBC site, with the smiling faces of current presenters Barney Harwood, Lindsey Russell and Radzi Chinyanganya – clearly the budget’s been cut down so they can’t even afford a fourth presenter – and nothing of the show’s history and influence on generations of kids and their parents. Will any of them go on to be as loved as John Noakes, Gethin Jones, Caron Keating or Konnie Huq? Or as infamous as Richard Bacon or Anthea Turner? Well, maybe, but it won’t be as a result of anything they do on Blue Peter.
Publicly, the BBC is still backing the show, with CBBC controller Cheryl Taylor saying: “I challenge any naysayers to check out last week’s enthralling episode on iPlayer if they have any doubts at all about its value and enduring appeal to the curious and clued-up CBBC audience.”
And maybe it will continue, but the fact is that with programming becoming so fragmented, and Blue Peter being such a ‘general’ and ‘safe’ show, it was always going to lose out once the audience went its separate ways looking for specialist content catering to their own choices – and don’t let the fact that the audience is between 6 and 12 become a red herring – they know what they do and don’t like, and they know there’s absolutely loads of stuff out there to choose from now. Perhaps even more than this, Blue Peter used to be a show that you’d watch even when you were older than 12, often all the way up to when you went to university or got a job. There was nothing else on around that time and, well, it was part of the furniture. It was nice to have around.
In many ways, Blue Peter is the Woolworths of TV. Everyone loved it, everyone was upset when it folded, and then everyone realised that they never actually bought anything from it anymore. It’s just the way of the world.
The final insult though? Apparently the coveted Blue Peter badge no longer gets you free entry to attractions like Alton Towers and Thorpe Park. Bloody hell, if the Blue Peter badge is no longer viable currency then we may as well give up.
The show celebrates its 60th anniversary next year; the first episode went out on 16 October 1958. Perhaps it should get a fitting send-off and, like that beloved great aunt who went a bit mad in the end, shuffle off this mortal coil with some dignity.
And I’ll give Shelley the tortoise a home if you need guys, just as long as you show me how to make that hibernation box one more time.