With the BBC under increasingly heavy fire over its decision to axe free TV licences for the over-75s, the last thing it needed was for its flagship drama to post the worst ratings in its 34 year history.
That’s exactly what EastEnders did last Tuesday though.
Then just two days later it was at it again setting a new low of just 2.9 million.
To be fair, there were extenuating circumstances.
Both episodes were moved around in the schedules so the Beeb could accommodate the very exciting Women’s World Cup.
The BBC would also no doubt accept that it failed to publicise the late changes well enough.
That said, the shocking figures did shine an unwelcome light on just how badly EastEnders has been rating over the last year or so.
Sure, it could dismiss last Thursday’s crushing head to head defeat by Emmerdale in the unofficial overnight figures – the Yorkshire soap pulled in 4.9 million viewers, as an insignificant anomaly.
However if we dig a little deeper into the official numbers, once catch-up viewing is taken into account it does not make for good reading for the BBC.
The London is soap is regularly beaten by its northern counterparts on ITV.
In the case of Coronation Street the final gap often reaches two million viewers.
No wonder some people are asking why on earth the BBC has invested £86.7million of licence-fee money – so far – on a new state-of-the-art Albert Square set in Elstree, Hertfordshire.
That’s on top of the estimated £10million a year the BBC spends on wages for its cast and crew.
Admittedly that total outlay would only cover around 15% of the cost of keeping the over-75s licence free for just one year.
Big money attracts big attention though.
Plus, if the ratings were to continue to slide you’d have to wonder whether EastEnders will even still be on air when the new set, which is being built so that the show can be filmed in high definition, is finally ready in 2023.
Could the BBC really afford to be left with a £90million white elephant on its hands?
That might sound unthinkable but giants have fallen before.
At this stage there can be no guarantee that EastEnders will not go the same way as Crossroads.
Of course, the BBC will no doubt haughtily bat away such speculation and claim that ratings do not matter so much.
Funnily enough, they seem to matter to the BBC’s publicity team when shows like Bodyguard, Strictly Come Dancing , Blue Planet and Line Of Duty are posting huge figures.
As people look to non-traditional sources such as Netflix , Amazon and YouTube the competition for viewers has never been tougher.
With that in mind – and with mainstream viewing figures down across the board generally – EastEnders could even be forgiven for thinking it is being singled out unfairly.
It could certainly be argued that the BBC hasn’t protected one of its supposed crown jewels enough lately.
Nothing annoys soap fans more than seeing their favourite show disappear from the schedules because of “bloody football”.
Surely the BBC could have softened that blow by sorting out – and publicising – its listings the minute the World Cup fixtures were announced.
That now looks like a massive own goal.
And at a time when the BBC’s finances are facing the most relentless scrutiny in its 92 year history it can ill afford to give its detractors any free shots.
Make no mistake, the knives are out in certain quarters. The BBC would be wise to avoid complacency.
Heads can only be buried in the sand for so long.
Having made a big show of hiring ex-Corrie boss Kate Oates, the woman with the soap Midas touch, as senior executive producer, the least the BBC can do is give her some support.
Ironically, with my TV critic’s hat on, I’d have to say Oates’ influence is already starting to show on screen.
Off the top of my head I could name four storylines which have genuinely captured my imagination – not least the classic “Who’s the daddy?” caper involving Phil, Keanu and Sharon.
To put that in context, that is exactly four more than I could have named at any other time in the past two years.
Oates should at least be given the chance to build on that promising start.
EastEnders needs to stay on our screens for a good few years yet.
Aside from anything else, if it did disappear the BBC would suddenly have over one hundred hours of prime time to fill every year.
Much as I love Gregg Wallace there are only so many factories and supermarkets one man can visit in a lifetime.
PS. In case the BBC’s publicity department has been slack again, I probably ought to mention EastEnders is not on tomorrow night.
Bloomin’ football innit.
*EastEnders airs Mondays and Fridays at 8pm and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7.30pm on BBC One
My Five-Point rescue plan
1. Make the writers watch the classic old episodes on the Drama channel for at least a month before allowing them to go near another script.
2. Don’t be ashamed of flaunting your wares on other BBC shows such as BBC Breakfast and The One Show. I wouldn’t mind seeing Danny Dyer popping up on Question Time.
3. Increase the comedy and uplifting storylines. We get enough misery on the news these days.
4. Find a new landlord and landlady for the Queen Vic. The Carters have served their purpose. A brand new family moving into Walford would be best.
5. Take it off air in the height of summer and move the younger characters to a villa in Majorca for six weeks. Live stream what they get up to on the iPlayer. There’d be fewer stories about bad ratings and more younger fans taking an interest.
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