I'll be honest, I don't share the fascination some people have for ratings. They just tell you what's popular. But hey, I had no internet access, some time on my hands and a full set of Corrie ratings data by year, so here's a nice companion piece to our excellent article on Viewing Figures, breaking down the programme's chart performances by month and year to shed some light on its highs and lows.
If you want to know where the viewing figures come from, the article above is where you want to go.
The most surprising thing about the early days of Coronation Street is how long it took to peak. Most books about the early days of the Street (on hand I have Daran Little's 35th and 40th books) focus on its rise to the top of the viewing charts in 1961, ending at the point where it was obvious Granada had struck gold, with Episode 73 on 23rd August becoming the most-watched programme in the UK that week. It's an achievement not to be balked at, for sure, but it's a bit like calling Star Wars a mega hit on the basis of it topping the box office.
The audience figure for that episode was 13.8 million viewers. It was the third most-watched episode up to that point. Two weeks later, Coronation Street broke 14 million for the first time, and 15 million the following week, then 16 million in October. By the end of 1962, it was averaging 17 million viewers an episode and logging more episodes at the top spot than there are weeks in the year (57 in 1962, due to some episodes tying for first place).
The first snag was when Tim Aspinall took over as producer in 1964. Up to and including April 1964, every month of the programme's run had averaged more than the same month the year before. In May, Tim Aspinall killed off Martha Longhurst in his first episode, and supposedly put the viewing numbers up, but in reality that month recorded the first drop on the previous year. It's a small one - only 200,000 viewers - but in his five months in charge only one month (June) gained on 1963, and ratings went up again after he left and H.V. Kershaw took charge. Even if you claim that five months is too short a timespan to gauge the popularity of his era, Aspinall demonstrably misjudged what he saw as a programme in decline when he arrived.
From October 1964 to March 1965, the Street averaged over 20 million viewers monthly, with the decade's most-watched episode falling during this period. The year as a whole averaged 18.4 million viewers - Corrie's best ever year. 1965 was another good year - 56 episodes reached the top spot, by the same fluke that happened in 1962, but the programme returned its first year-on-year drop, losing 2.5% of 1964's audience. In October, the BBC targetted Coronation Street on Monday nights by scheduling the fourth season of Steptoe and Son directly opposite it, knocking all but one of the seven affected episodes out of the top twenty. This also had a knock-on effect on the Wednesday episodes, which were down on 1964 (only one episode in this three-month period topped 20 million viewers). 1966 dropped further, losing 6.8% on 1965 and falling to an average of 16.7 million viewers, and that's without aggressive BBC scheduling.
The remaining years of the decade continued the decline, dropping to just over 15 million viewers in 1969. Now, these are still great figures. The programme was in good form throughout the decade, with 32 episodes topping the ratings charts in 1968 (although only 16 did so in 1969, the lowest number since 1961). But a loss of over a million viewers in one year is a cause for concern, even for a mega hit. An important thing to note is that throughout this, Coronation Street had a stable core of writers and almost a static main cast, so it seems reasonable to expect that anyone who enjoyed its weekly offerings would continue to do so. Maybe there's only so long that something can be new and shiny before it starts being taken for granted and viewers need that extra reason to tune in; when Elsie Tanner married Steve Tanner in 1967, ratings returned to 20 million, but only for the wedding episodes (although ratings were up on the year before for the rest of the year and the first quarter of 1968).
The late 60s also marked the point where Coronation Street first caught flak for its portrayal of a working class backstreet which according to critics was a decade out of step (where were the tower blocks?). That and the fact that the cast wasn't getting any younger would have contributed to the feeling of a programme that had had its day (and according to Daran Little, interviewed for Sean Egan's 50 Years of Coronation Street, Granada felt the same and seriously considered letting it finish while it could still boast a strong audience). In 1968, the Street was modernized with its first outdoor set, the Grape Street set, and, within storylines, the building of the ultra-modern Maisonettes, but the decline continued; after April 1968, it wasn't until the following November that the programme gained on the same month the previous year.
Viewers must have liked their Coronation Street in colour – the rise in November and December 1969 continued throughout 1970 only to drop in December, when the ITV Colour Strike hit (although as hardly anybody had a colour set yet, it's probably a coincidence). Even so, it seems that in 1970 the Street suddenly had something it was missing before as the average for the year – standing at 16.26 million viewers – was the highest since 1966. It was certainly a busy year by Street standards at that point – Elsie got married (again), Minnie Caldwell was taken hostage, Jack Walker died and Irma Barlow lost her husband and son in a car crash. But incident – real incident like those listed – had never seemed to matter much to viewers before (the more widely-watched 1963, for instance, was very low on incident).
1971 was H.V. Kershaw's last year as producer, and the last time for nearly ten years that the Street's presence atop the viewing charts could be described as business as usual. 21 episodes reached number one in 1971 – and none at all in 1972. The drop is also reflected in viewing figures, with the early part of the decade falling year-on-year, and with only four months in 1971 and 1972 building on the previous year's audience figures. This 'slump' (keeping in mind that the average figure for 1972 – 14.8 million viewers – was something that the majority of programmes could only dream of) was touched on in Little's 40 Years of Coronation Street, but the low point there is wrongly attributed to 1973 (which actually saw a rise and seven months gaining on 1972), possibly due to Little confusing number of viewers with number of homes, which was how ITV viewing figures were reported then).
The reason for the fall in viewers (if there must be one) is difficult to guess at. 1972 marks the point where producers started staying around for a while – it had always been a six-month proposition at most before, alternating between Harry Kershaw and the latest 'new broom'. The result was that new ideas were always coming into the programme, but Kershaw was there to act as a safe pair of hands. But incoming producer Eric Prytherch – and his successor Susi Hush – stayed for two years. They would get the chance to put their stamp on the Street to the extent that, so far, only Kershaw had been around long enough to do. 40 Years also makes a point of mentioning the effect of Patricia Phoenix's departure in 1973 and Violet Carson's health problems in 1974, as well as Doris Speed's 1973 sabbatical, but by the time those occurred, a corner had been turned – ratings went up in 1973, and even further in 1974, whose averages gained on the previous year's on no less than eight months (although the paucity of episodes reaching the top of the ratings continued). Things were getting better, but slowly.
Bill Podmore took over as producer of the Street in 1976. His era, with his insistence on including as much comedy as possible, is widely regarded by fans as the programme's golden age. In the ratings, his era marks a rather confusing period; unsurprisingly, there was a boost from Pat Phoenix's return, but this was followed by the lowest summer figures since 1961, when the programme was still finding its audience. The figures picked up again for the last third of the year, with all four months gaining on 1975. 1975 and 1976 declined overall, but the declines were the smallest yet (less than 1% each – nothing to worry about), but only three episodes reached the top of the ratings over the two-year period. Elsie may have been back, but it seemed she hadn't brought any new viewers with her.
In the first month of 1977, the viewers suddenly came back; January logged an average of 19.15 million viewers, a 15% increase on 1976. Where these viewers came from, who can guess – it was a huge increase even on the last few episodes from 1976. For four months, Coronation Street was getting figures reminiscent of its glory days, with five episodes topping 20 million viewers, peaking with 20.85 for Episode 1697 on 20th April 1977, which saw Len Fairclough and Rita Littlewood finally tie the knot (pictured above) after five years of engagements and break-ups. The year still averaged lower than 1970 as the ratings for the latter part of the year were less consistent, with two months losing more than 10% of 1976's audience.
Sadly, lightning did not strike twice and 1978 saw some huge drops – May 1978 averaged more than three million viewers less than May 1977 partially due to a clash with the BBC's Blake's 7. The year as a whole scored a 15 million average, down from 15.88 million the year before – the second lowest of the decade, and this despite the press attention (and respect) following the murder of Ernie Bishop in January. 1979 is another story again – beginning with March and up to the ITV strike, the Street gained on 1978, but (understandably) lost viewers in the last quarter of the year as the programme built up momentum – and it's audience – when ITV began transmitting again. However, 1979 saw the programme finally break double figures again for episodes topping the viewing charts (11 hit the top spot that year). Obviously, whether the figures rise or fall depends only on how the previous year fared and it's not an absolute measure of high ratings. It is curious however that one of Coronation Street's most stable periods behind-the-scenes – overseen by the programme's longest-serving producer – would have such inconsistent ratings. This – possibly blinkered – fan sees no difference in quality throughout.
The early 1980s was one of Coronation Street's most successful periods. The average rating in 1980 was 15.45 million viewers – barely a rise above 1979, but 14 episodes reached the top of the viewing charts, the highest since 1971. This figure would increase year-on-year until 1983, when 48 episodes hit the top spot, reminiscent of the programme's glory days. 1981 was also a 'gain' year, boosted by another Street wedding long in the making: Ken Barlow and Deirdre Langton, who had become an unlikely power couple (although contrary to some sources, the wedding wasn't more widely watched than that year's Royal Wedding; Coronation Street only beat ITV's coverage).
Ratings fell in 1982 to an average of 14.5 million – lower than 1972 – though the programme's chart positions were still on the up. The biggest drops were in the summer, where the equivalent months in 1981 were boosted by the after-effect of Ken and Deirdre's wedding. 1983 rated similarly – and this despite the amount of press interest in the Ken/Deirdre/Mike Baldwin affair (the month where the affair came out gained only 18,000 viewers over 1982). The trend continued until the last quarter of 1984 – around the time of Stan Ogden's funeral – when ratings shot up to 19 million, and staying two million above the previous year until the third quarter of 1985, a year which averaged 16.49 million – the highest since 1966, peaking with 21.4 million viewers on 2nd January 1985.
As most fans will know, Coronation Street lost of a lot big names in 1983-4, and unlike Tim Aspinall's purge, this was no producer gone axe-crazy. The only actor sacked out of the eight big names who left was Peter Adamson; Doris Speed, Fred Feast, Geoffrey Hughes and Pat Pheonix (again) resigned, while Bernard Youens, Peter Dudley and Jack Howarth passed away. Adamson's legal troubles and Speed's illness – a chain of events including a tabloid expose showing her to be 15 years older than she claimed left people wondering if she would ever return to the Street – kept the programme in the tabloids for all the wrong reasons in 1983. By 1984, their attention had turned to the fate of the programme itself, as characters vanished (Fred Gee simply disappeared when Fred Feast refused to sign a new contract), with the tabloids speculating that the Street was cursed and didn't have long left. It's interesting however that the ratings didn't really hit the stratosphere until Coronation Street was more or less back on track – new characters such as Kevin Webster, Curly Watts and Percy Sugden were well established by the end of 1984. Though it's fitting that the highest rated episode of the decade should be the one where Bet becomes the new landlady of the Rovers.
Enter EastEnders, and another myth quashed. Launching on 19th February 1985, EastEnders was broadcast three times a week – two episodes during the week and a weekend omnibus. Rather than report on the omnibus ratings separately, a combined ratings figure was made for each episode comprising the first showing and its omnibus figure, giving it an automatic advantage over the Street (and everything else on television). 32 episodes of Coronation Street in 1985 hit number one – EastEnders wasn't a ratings success right away, despite the huge amount of publicity surrounding its launch – but by 1986 EastEnders had hit its stride and was taking the number one spot every week. It wasn't a fair fight, but (surprisingly) the press ignored the fact that they were aggregated figures – and Granada's complaints – and reported them as if they were achieved by a single viewing, as did the BBC brass. Even today, it's not generally known that EastEnders's record-breaking figure of 30 million for Christmas Day 1986 was comprised of 19 million for the first showing and 11 million for the omnibus – perhaps not even the biggest single viewing figure for EastEnders that year, never mind Coronation Street. In fact, not a single episode of EastEnders enters the top twenty single broadcasts of the decade in the UK (the same chart contains eight episodes of Coronation Street). 
Returning to Weatherfield now, 1986 to 1988 saw a year-on-year decline, but remained above 1982 levels, however the averages used for 1986 and 1987 don't include the figures for the Rovers fire episode or the week of Hilda Ogden's exit, as due to a repeat, only EastEnders-style aggregated figures are available for those episodes. John G. Temple was Coronation Street's producer from 1985 to 1987, followed by the return of Bill Podmore until early 1989.
1989 was an important year for Coronation Street: as well as gaining a new producer and executive producer, who were keen to update the show, it gained a third weekly episode and, finally, a regular omnibus, which had the immediate effect of putting the Street back at the top of the ratings where it should have been for the last three years (45 episodes claimed the top spot that year). However, it was a good year even on first-run ratings; five months improved on 1988 by more than 10%, despite competition including another British national institution, Doctor Who. The average for 1989 (first showings) was 15.5 million viewers – 1 million less than 1985, but with its audience probably split by the omnibus (though I won't dwell much on that), possibly even more impressive.
This is where it gets complicated...
As BARB only gives aggregated figures for each episode until the end of 2001, Corriepedia doesn't (yet) have a full set of first-showing viewing figures. However, where we don't have that data (from Episode 3291 on 14th October 1991 to the end of 1992, and all of 1994-2001), we have BARB's combined figures which is what we'll use to measure Coronation Street's viewership in those years.
As you'd expect, with the headline stories of the era occurring in 1989, ratings in 1990 fell, however the loss was mostly confined to the omnibus – combined figures lost two million on 1989, but first viewing dropped less than half a million. A boost in the last third of 1991 then brought ratings above 1989 levels; the average for the year up to Episode 3290 (and including a week in November where we have the first-showing figures), the average for the year was 15.79 million viewers.
The upward trend continued under producer Carolyn Reynolds, with the Street's ratings averaging 18.34 million viewers (combined figures) in 1992 and 17.12 million viewers (first showing) in 1993, the highest for any year outside of the dizzy heights of 1963-5. I know, that one surprised me too. 51 episodes hit number one in 1993, and its highest rated episode - on 13th January, seen by 21.46 million viewers - was the most watched episode of the decade. Another great time for the Street, which seems to have defied the general trend of decreasing ratings in the multichannel Sky-TV environment the programme now existed in.
But alas, it didn't last. 1994 saw a new producer in Sue Pritchard, whose first year in charge shed 18.1% of 1992's (combined) average. Losses over 1995 and 1996 were not so huge – 2% each year – but a disastrous rating of 10.32 million viewers (combined figure) for the Christmas Day 1996 episode seems to have pushed ITV into action by replacing Pritchard with Brian Park in early 1997. In Egan's 50 Years book, Park reveals that ITV wanted to address a PR bias against the Street by aiming for a younger audience. He stresses that ITV didn't see the Street's ratings as disastrous, but that they were concerned that they were falling while EastEnders was holding steady (though why that should matter so much...), particularly in the London area where LWT was threatening to broadcast the Street at a different time of the day. It's worth pointing out that Coronation Street was still ahead of EastEnders during this period, and that it took the top spot in the ratings in more than 40 weeks each year from 1994-6.
Though Park's changes could be seen right away with the death of Derek Wilton and Don Brennan's spectacular kidnap of Alma Baldwin and taxi plunge into the River Irwell, 1997 saw another drop in average ratings, to just 14.93 million viewers. The drop is mostly due to the badly-handled introduction of the Sunday episode in November 1996, which for months lagged 3 million + behind the rest of the week's episodes; by the last quarter of the 1997, the Street was improving on 1996's ratings and this continued throughout 1998, in which every month gained on 1997. So did Brian Park turn Coronation Street's fortunes around? Well, the (again, aggregated) average for 1998 was 15.76 million viewers, which is identical to 1996's average (if you must know, it's very slightly above).
David Hanson took over as producer in late 1998, and Jane Macnaught a year later. Ratings for 1999 were on the same level as 1998 until the last three months of the year, all of which lost around 10%. The year's average was 15.57 million viewers.
The 2000s to present
The big hitters from the last 12-13 years won't come as a surprise to anyone. Event episodes are signposted well in advance, and networks are ready for the viewing figures coming in. So I won't say much about them. The high figures never last anyway.
Jane Macnaught's time is an interesting one. She was in charge until the end of 2001, and is remembered for focusing on 'issues', something Coronation Street had never really done before. She had a lot of headline stories which were well received - Sarah Louise's teenage pregnancy, Toyah Battersby's rape, Alma Halliwell's death, Steve McDonald's ordeal at the hands of Jez Quigley, Raquel and Curly's two-hander, and the 40th anniversary live episode, and those episodes rated well, but they were bucking a trend of the sharpest decline the programme had seen - from 15.6 million viewers (aggregated) in 1999 to 13.2 million in 2001, and a decline year-on-year in every month during that two-year period (had it continued to flounder at that rate, it would be under five million viewers by now). In the charts, EastEnders had at last legitimately overtaken it, with Coronation Street reaching top of the rankings just three times in 2001.
2002 is another tricky year as BARB switches to recording first-transmission ratings at this point, so we have nothing to compare its ratings against. We can only use it as a barometer for new producer Kieran Roberts's second year in charge, 2003 - which, being the year of the Richard Hillman climax, and other big storylines which began in 2002 - increased 11% on 2002, to 13.2 million viewers, the biggest ever increase in a single year (other than 1961 and 1962). Corrie also regained its supremacy in the rankings, topping the charts on 34 and 37 weeks of the year in 2002 and 2003 respectively. The strong showing in the charts continued over the next few years under Tony Wood and Steve Frost (over 40 weeks of the year on each year), even though the level reached in 2003 was ebbed away over the next three years, each of which fell by over 8% - just as 2001 had. The last yearly average over 10 million was 2007.
Since then, the ratings have generally trended downwards, but with a twist. 2010 was a 'gain' year, and also the year where Corrie starting being simulcast on ITVHD (with ratings recorded separately). Without including ITVHD or ITV+1, 2012 was the first year where not a single month averaged above 10 million viewers. Corrie has also lost its grip on the rankings in the last few years, with only nine episodes reaching the top spot in 2011 and ten episodes in 2012 (although this is using BARB's figures, YMMV whether the above figures should be included).
The fact that there are now so many different ways of reporting the viewing figures shows how much the TV landscape has changed in the last few years; clearly, the days of 15+ million viewers are gone for good. But Coronation Street is still the number one soap and it seems that as long as that continues, we probably won't see any major shake-ups or sacked producers. And it's got a few shake-ups left in it yet.