Houdini & Doyle conjures tepid response

By Andy Fry
May 6, 2016

Hit & Miss
Houdini & Doyle stars Stephen Mangan (left) and Michael Weston
ITV Encore’s Houdini & Doyle stars Stephen Mangan (left) and Michael Weston

UK commercial broadcaster ITV launched pay TV channel ITV Encore in June 2014. Available exclusively on DTH platform Sky, the drama-exclusive channel is part of ITV’s attempt to build a stronger presence in the subscription TV business.

Much of ITV Encore is made up of repeats of shows that have previously aired on the flagship channel (Downton Abbey, Vera, Poirot). But in a bid to woo new viewers, Encore also airs the occasional original series or first-run acquisition.

Recent examples have included The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit, Gracepoint, Jordskott and The Americans (though this one, a US acquisition from Fox, actually started out on ITV).

Another new show currently airing on ITV Encore is Houdini & Doyle, a Canadian-British coproduction that imagines that escapologist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle teamed up to solve crimes together. Not a bad idea as far as it goes, but one that is not getting much exposure among UK viewers. With just a couple of episodes to go, it is attracting an audience of around 90,000 to 100,000 (based on BARB’s seven-day data).

This isn’t especially the fault of the show – which is actually ITV Encore’s top-rated programme at present. For some reason, the channel is not making much of an inroad with Sky’s subscriber base.

To put it in perspective, in the last week of April, Houdini & Doyle attracted 96,000 viewers compared with 2.2 million for Sky Atlantic’s top-rated drama Game of Thrones. If that comparison seems a little unfair, then it’s also worth noting that Sky1’s top-rated drama was The Flash (917,000), Fox UK’s was NCIS (909,000), Sky Living’s was Elementary (808,000) and 5USA’s was The Mysteries of Laura (574,000). Houdini & Doyle’s audience was actually lower than factual entertainment shows on Discovery and Lifetime.

Indian Summers has been cancelled after its ratings fell sharply in its second run on Channel 4
Indian Summers has been cancelled after its ratings fell sharply in its second run on Channel 4

ITV could argue that the channel is quite new (only two years old) and that competition in the UK pay TV market is intense. But its cross-promotion from its flagship channel (and others in its portfolio) ought to be having more of an impact.

So what conclusions can we draw? Well, it looks like ITV has two choices. Firstly, it could really invest in making ITV Encore a competitor to the channels mentioned above. This would require more investment in original programming and acquisitions, so that viewers would routinely check the channel on the EPG.

At the moment there simply isn’t enough new content flowing through Encore to make it a habit. To illustrate this point, the fact that The Walking Dead airs on Fox at 21.00 means I am now in the habit of looking at Fox for new shows, which is how I discovered 11.22.63. In a similar vein, Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude was the reason I went on to discover The Affair.

I’ve also watched The Frankenstein Chronicles and Midwinter of the Spirit but not found enough additional content on ITV Encore to develop the same kind of brand engagement (there’s actually a kind of profile mismatch, since I have little interest in shows like Vera).

Of course, more heavyweight content is expensive. So an alternative would be to settle for a more modest proposal – in which case ITV would be better airing shows like Houdini & Doyle on the main commercial channel and then passing them on to ITV Encore as repeats. Houdini & Doyle is only getting around 20,000 more viewers than repeats of Vera on ITV Encore, so the broadcaster wouldn’t be losing much through this approach.

But what of the show itself? While the modest UK performance of Houdini & Doyle is primarily down to ITV Encore’s lack of traction, it has to be said that the series isn’t performing very well by other measures.

BBC has found a hit with The A Word, based on a Keshet format
BBC has found a hit with The A Word, based on a format from Israel’s Keshet

In the US, it has started slowly on Fox. With 2.6 million viewers for its opening episode and a poor response from 18-49s, it is one of the channel’s lowest performers of the year (about the same as Minority Report – and we know how that ended up). Combined with a low score on IMDb and some pretty poor reviews (see this one from The Telegraph), it looks like Houdini & Doyle will go the same way as Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde.

While we’re on a downer, we may as well deal with the death of Channel 4’s £15m epic Indian Summers. C4 says it is “incredibly proud” of the show but took the decision to cancel it after the audience dropped from around three million in season one to 1.7 million in season two.

There has been a suggestion that the falling ratings are the result of tough competition from shows like The Night Manager. But the critics have, for the most part, responded negatively to the latest run. While they have enjoyed “the sumptuous settings,” the prevailing view is that it lacks substance and suffers from a plodding plot. Hopefully, though, there will be plenty of job offers for Nikesh Patel, who has soldiered on throughout the series as Aafrin Dalal.

For good news stories, we have to return to the BBC, which has been on fire this year. Its latest success story is The A Word, which chalked up a remarkably consistent audience of 5.5 million during its recent run on Tuesday nights at 21.00.

Adapted by Peter Bowker from a format by Israel’s Keshet, the show tells the story of a couple who learn their son is autistic. It has been warmly received by critics and is certain to pick up more format deals after its run in the UK.

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