The obvious answer to the question posed in the title of this article is there’s no way BBC’s Sherlock is actually bigger than Doctor Who now. Doctor Who just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Granted, that is actually misleading since Doctor Who has only been on TV as an on-going TV series for around 34 of those 50 years. That’s still monumental in comparison to the Sherlock, which has only been around since July of 2010. In that time, it has only aired two three-episode seasons, with a third season having just premiered last night on BBC. Doctor Who is a cultural institution in the UK, and a long-time cult hit in the US which has recently ascended to record levels of popularity. There is simply more collective memory attached to Doctor Who than Sherlock, which is a flash in the pan by comparison.
But, still, the overnight ratings are in for the third season premiere of Sherlock, and they’re better than Doctor Who’s most recent ratings. 9.2 million UK viewers tuned in to finally see the answer to how Sherlock faked his death at the end of the second season, representing an audience share of 33.8%. It is an improvement on the previous record holder for Sherlock, the second season premiere which debuted to an overnight audience of 8.75 million viewers and a 30.9% share. This made the third season premiere not only the most watched show on the BBC but the most watched show on any channel in the UK. It also bested the ratings of other UK dramas which aired during the Christmas period, like EastEnders and Downton Abbey.
Doctor Who‘s “Time of the Doctor” Christmas special which was Matt Smith’s final episode in the lead role had an overnight total of 8.29 million viewers (30.7% share), with a peak of 10.2 million viewers during the final minutes. It ultimately wasn’t even the most watched show on BBC1, an honor which went to Mrs. Brown’s Boys Christmas Special and its 9.4 million viewers. This was a higher overnight viewership total than the last Doctor Who Christmas special, 2012’s “The Snowmen,” which only had 7.59 million viewers.
What about America? Sherlock‘s third season will not premiere in America until January 19, 2014 on local PBS stations as part of their Masterpiece series. That opens the show up to potential audience erosion from those who opt for piracy to view illegally downloaded copies of the season three episodes. Doctor Who no longer has such worries, airing on BBC America on the same dates it premieres on BBC in the UK. “Time of the Doctor” set a ratings record on BBC America this Christmas, drawing an audience of 2.47 million viewers. Rather tellingly, what had been the previous record holder for BBC America? The 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special which debuted a month earlier to 2.4 million viewers.
How many people watch Sherlock on PBS? Actually, quite a bit more than watch Doctor Who on BBC America. The second season of Sherlock premiered to stunning overnight figure of 3.2 million viewers on PBS.
So, basically, Sherlock just bested the UK viewership totals for the most recent Doctor Who episode, and its PBS ratings would easily smash BBC America’s ratings records recently set by Doctor Who. The numbers would indicate Sherlock is actually being watched by more people. Prior to the 50th Anniversary special, the second half of Doctor Who’s seventh season was actually down in the ratings in the UK, averaging around 6-7 million viewers, i.e., 1-2 million fewer than watched the first half of season 7. By comparison, the second season of Sherlock was watched by an average of 9-11 million UK viewers, an improvement on the 8-9 million who watched the first season.
However, it’s not really a fair comparison. For starters, Sherlock had been away for two years to the day until last night whereas Doctor Who fans only had to wait around a month in-between the 50th Anniversary special and “Time of the Doctor.” Moreover, Sherlock only airs three 90-minute episodes per season, which are crafted to be as cinematic, i.e., movie-like, as possible. In the UK, it airs on the flagship station of the BBC just as Doctor Who does. However, in the US it airs on the widely accessible PBS whereas Doctor Who is relegated to cable where not everyone will have access to BBC America. Outside of the vague similarities of their central characters and intricate plotting, they are very different shows. The only reason you really compare the two is because they share the same showrunner/head-writer in Steven Moffat, who co-created Sherlock with Mark Gattis.
This is what Moffat recently told The Hollywood Reporter about the US fanbase for Sherlock:
In general, these things move so quickly these days. It became a very big hit in Britain very, very fast, and probably a screening we went to in New York for some of [season two episode] “A Scandal in Belgravia.” It was the first 35 minutes before it went out, and I remember the response we were getting was a big surprise. [Co-creator] Mark [Gatiss] and I were thinking, “Well that’s the response we’re getting, people will chase Benedict down the street.” If I mentioned Sherlock in passing for Doctor Who, I would get these huge shouts — that was when I realized it was approaching Doctor Who scale.
Sherlock has managed to turn stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman into hot commodities in Hollywood, with Cumberbatch popping up in seemingly at least one high-profile movie every fiscal quarter and Freeman one of the few aspects of Peter Jacksons’ Hobbit films which has been spared any criticism. Over at Doctor Who, David Tennant failed to crack the American market, returning to starring in British television, while the jury is still out on how well Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darville will fare. Smith has a starring role in Ryan Golsing’s directorial debut, Gillan will be but one of many villains in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and Darville transitioned to Broadway in Once.
Sherlock is currently watched by more people, and its stars have parlayed their success to humongous things. By traditional measures, it might be the bigger deal at the moment. However, it hasn’t had things like a globally simulcast announcement special that was the Peter Capaldi as 12th Doctor announcement nor has it received a limited, global theatrical release as Doctor Who did for “Day of the Doctor,” earning a stunning $10.2 million in the process. However, the ultimate answer to the question is: why should we be made to choose between the two? They’re both amazing.
Here’s a trailer for the next episode of Sherlock: