Action, suspense, drama … how Brexit became the latest reality TV hit

Record figures for news programmes proves the political saga is addictive viewing

Viewing and listener figures for Brexit news programmes and Westminster debates have set new records in the past few months.

BBC Parliament, the niche television channel that relays proceedings from the House of Commons, has been watched by more than 3.5 million people every month since January, and it is now clear that key votes on the “no confidence” motion, meaningful votes one and two, and lobby divisions on the backstop and no deal have given the channel its top five biggest days of the past decade. Channel 4 News and its YouTube updates have also drawn unprecedented numbers of viewers.

A BBC spokesperson said increased activity in Westminster had been reflected in “record-breaking audience figures to BBC Parliament”, and Tony Hall, director general of the corporation, told the House of Lords last week that the ratings for top dramas and soaps were being challenged by news. “More than 4 million came to the live BBC News Special last week, as MPs voted on the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement – as many as watched Shetland or EastEnders,” said Hall in the Lord Speaker’s lecture.

So, while the jaded may make efforts to avoid Brexit, plenty of political vultures are clearly putting in the hours.

At Channel 4 News, viewers for the first three months of the year are up by up 21%, editor Ben de Pear told the Observer. “Last year at around this time, when it was all still mired in theory, the viewership size actually dipped a little for the first time after four years of growth. Then, around the moment of the second meaningful vote, it picked up, and we are getting up to 1.3 million a show, while digitally we are getting 4 to 5 million views a day. Although even the people debating often do not really understand the issues, the audiences feel passionate about it all.”

For Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, business and consumer psychologist at University College London, it is clear that an established human need to stay ahead of events is now being fed by 24-hour news and social media.

“The desire to consume news is nothing new. In primitive times, scouts were sent out to observe neighbouring villages and report back,” he said.

“However, in today’s social media age, there is a rising fear of missing out. So, when a key event comes along, such as Brexit, people feel a sense of urgency to keep in the loop.”

Tsivrikos also pinpoints an appetite for the entertainment that angry debates can offer. Brexit, he suggests, is “the latest reality TV show to capture the nation. Quite simply, there’s action, drama, suspense and turning points within the coverage of a major event. Key figures often build up a persona in the media, enticing people to keep consuming.”

Meanwhile, Channel 4 News on Saturday said it “regrets” any offence caused by Jon Snow’s “unscripted observation” after the journalist said he had “never seen so many white people in one place” during a live broadcast from outside Westminster during protests over the Brexit votes.

The presenter, 71, was signing off from the Friday evening bulletin when he made the comment.

BBC figures are sourced from Barb and relate to adults aged 16+ watching for three minutes or more


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Gravitas, surprises and John Bercow: TV election night coverage
The BBC goes in heavy, Channel 4 goes for laughs and Sky News boasts the former Speaker as a pundit

Harriet Sherwood

07, Dec, 2019 @8:28 PM

Article image
UK music stars rail against Brexit in open letter to Theresa May
Celebrated musicians issue stark warning leaving EU will wreak havoc on creative sector

Nosheen Iqbal

06, Oct, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
Brexit: what could happen next
With 12 days to go, where does the UK stand following the confusing blizzard of Brexit votes in parliament last week?

Toby Helm

16, Mar, 2019 @5:30 PM

Article image
What’s trickier than Brexit? Writing a TV drama about it
Dramatists behind a C4 film and two plays about the referendum must contend with the way ‘facts’ and key players are still shifting

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

30, Jun, 2018 @9:09 PM

Article image
Who will win the Conservatives’ battle of Brexit?
After the election, May’s mandate for a hard Brexit is in question and Tory Remainers are flexing their muscles. What direction will the party take?

Toby Helm Observer political editor

17, Jun, 2017 @9:30 PM

Article image
Corbyn faces furious Labour backlash over backing Brexit
Labour leader accused of betrayal on second poll and ‘in danger of losing young backers’

Toby Helm and Michael Savage

22, Dec, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
Labour chairman attacks Corbyn over ‘people’s vote’ on Brexit
Lavery in ‘broadside’ at party leader during meeting of MPs

Toby Helm political editor

06, Apr, 2019 @7:30 PM

Article image
‘Brexit makes picking the Grand National winner look easy’
At Aintree, bookies and punters are hedging their political bets

Greg Wood

06, Apr, 2019 @6:52 PM

Article image
PM’s former security adviser warns of Brexit defence cuts
Pound’s slide has blown a £700m hole in MoD budgets, says Mark Lyall Grant

Michael Savage Observer policy editor

14, Oct, 2017 @8:30 PM

Article image
Brexit secretary met Labour MPs championing second referendum plan
Stephen Barclay held talks with Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson over their plan to break Brexit deadlock

Toby Helm

10, Mar, 2019 @9:08 AM