The Way We Watch Television: ‘Sherlock’ By the Numbers

Fans of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock will go to great lengths to watch the television series. We know because we asked.

Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat

Since its debut on the BBC in July 2010, Sherlock has won nearly as many awards as it has fans. This modernized Sherlock Holmes adaptation, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, frequently relies on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but the scripts twist canon into the intriguing new plot and character developments.

Among the many accolades heaped upon the series and its creators, cast, and crew are BAFTAs for Best Dramatic Series and Best Supporting Actor [Martin Freeman (John Watson) in 2011 and Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty) in 2012], a dramatic television series BAFTA Cymru, Critics Choice Television Awards as Best Movie/Miniseries and Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, 2012), and multiple Crime Thriller Awards [e.g., in 2012 alone, Best Television Series, Best Actor (Cumberbatch), and Best Supporting Actor (Freeman)]. Indeed, its admirers in the entertainment industry span continents; Sherlock has been nominated or received awards in Canada and the US, for example. This high-quality production boasts fans worldwide; Sherlock has been sold to more than 100 markets internationally and is one of the UK’s “top selling program brands”.

As a result of its devoted fanbase at home and its mass distribution abroad, Sherlock is a worthwhile subject to study the way an international online fandom watches new episodes of a television series. Only three 90-minute episodes were produced and broadcast during each of its first two seasons (first broadcast in the UK in July-August 2010 and January 2012, followed by global distribution), and audiences must endure long hiatuses between groups of new episodes. The series’ fans want to watch episodes as soon as they are available – but in past seasons, they may take weeks or months after the UK broadcast to arrive legally on networks worldwide. However, some fans outside the UK prefer not to wait so long to see their favorite program.

To learn more about fans’ viewing habits, in July 2012, about six weeks after Sherlock was broadcast on PBS in the US, I created and distributed an English-language survey made available to the global Sherlock fandom. This survey broadly covered several diverse topics and was designed only to provide a screenshot of online Sherlock fandom at a high point in the series’ popularity and to indicate some possible directions for further study of this or other television series.

To gather as many participants as possible, I advertised the survey link through my Twitter and Facebook accounts and sent emails or tweets specifically to groups or sites likely visible to Sherlock fans, such as those devoted to a series’ actor, the series, or Sherlock Holmes. For example, I tweeted Sherlockology, Baker Street Babes, and unofficial sites devoted to the series’ stars, Cumberbatch or Freeman. I encouraged fans to share the link, and I received emails that Sherlock fan sites in France and Poland posted a link to the survey. It was actively promoted online for one week (9-16 July) and left open for a few days after the announced closing so that people who saw survey notices within a week after the original posts could still participate. Five hundred sixty-five people completed the survey.

The Ways Sherlock Fans Watch New Episodes

The people who took this survey were asked about their viewing habits, and the results indicate changes in how hardcore Sherlock fans gain access to episodes. Between the respective air dates of the first-season premiere episode “A Study in Pink” and the second-season opener “A Scandal in Belgravia”, these viewers shifted toward more online viewing (whether in real-time during the initial broadcast or through a later download). Overseas audiences also found many places or ways to view Sherlock’s latest adventure.

The survey asked how fans typically first watch a Sherlock episode: 36.1 percent (204) chose “via Internet within a week after the BBC has first broadcast an episode”, an interesting finding because the number of respondents within the BBC’s television broadcast area, determined by the respondents’ listed country of residence, is only 22.8 percent (121), not nearly the 36.1 percent who report watching a new episode online. The BBC’s iPlayer is designed to download available episodes only to those living in the UK and presumably paying an annual fee to receive programs.

Another third reported a wide range of viewing practices: 15.4 percent (87) via Internet more than a week after the BBC first broadcast an episode (an especially important result when combined with the 36.1 percent who watch the episode online when it is first available). The combined results indicate a hefty number of these Sherlock fans initially watching an episode online whenever it is convenient for them to do so.

The survey guaranteed anonymity, which may be why some respondents admitted that they resorted to downloads of BBC episodes that should not be possible for non-UK residents. Those 1.9 percent (11) who selected “another way or place” to describe their initial viewing of new episodes elaborated on their viewing habits by writing in the required text box. Some responses indicate “shady” viewing practices, especially at the start of the second season: “Saw the first season on the Internet a year after it aired and saw the 2nd season on Internet a day after it aired,” “Illegally when it first comes out and legally when it airs in my country,” or “I be pirate arrrrrrrr Hours after BBC broadcast.”

In addition to viewing options that raise a question about their legality, other responses indicated a range of legal, later-viewing options: “At a Sherlock party at a friend’s house (whole season),” “Ordered DVD from the UK three months before the German broadcast”, “Netflix” (4 responses), or “iTunes”. That so many of these comments refer to online viewing further increases the total percentage of these fans, who watch Sherlock on their computer but chose the “other” category instead of the multiple-choice item referring to online viewing. Because these fans found out about the survey and took it online, it may not be surprising that their episode viewing increasingly occurs online.

However, almost another final third (30.6 percent; 173) say they still watch an episode first on television when it is originally broadcast in their country. More on-television (instead of on-computer) viewing is reported by the 7.6 percent (43) who watch episodes on DVD; 4.1 percent (23) via DVR or a recording they made of the original broadcast; 3.0 percent (17) on television when an episode is rebroadcast/rerun; and 1.2 percent (7) on Blu-ray. These results refer to participants’ Sherlock viewing practices across two seasons.

When asked specifically about watching “A Study in Pink” for the first time, 42.8 percent (242) said they watched the episode on a computer, whereas 30.1 percent (170) watched it on television. Another 10.1 percent (57) watched it on DVD or Blu-ray (through their television instead of another device); 6.2 percent (35) viewed it on television when the episode was rebroadcast/rerun; 5.8 percent (33) saw it as a DVR or another recording they made for television; 2.8 percent (16) watched it online but through a device other than a computer (e.g., a smartphone); and 0.2 percent (1) first saw it on board an airplane as in-flight entertainment. Finally, 1.8 percent (10) first viewed this episode in another way or place: via unspecified computer download (4 responses), through Netflix (3), through iTunes (2), or in a university class (1).

Sherlock seems to have benefitted both from word of mouth from fans who first watched episodes in the UK and encouraged more people to sample the series and from technology that allows audiences who do not live in the UK to see an episode soon after its original broadcast. When “A Scandal in Belgravia” was broadcast in the UK, more than half (52.2 percent; 295) taking this survey first watched this episode online, whereas 27.1 percent (153) watched it first on television. These figures are an increase of almost 10 percent from the number who watched “A Study in Pink” online the first time and a decrease of 3 percent who saw the second-season debut on television.

These results should not be surprising, given fans’ preference to see an episode right away rather than waiting for international distribution. Other ways or places that fans initially watched “A Scandal in Belgravia” are on DVD or Blu-ray (watched on their television) (7.6 percent; 43), as a DVR or another type of television recording they made (4.6 percent; 25), on television when the episode was rebroadcast/rerun (3.5 percent; 20), online on a device that is not a computer (e.g., a smartphone) (1.8 percent; 10), in a special public screening in the UK (e.g., the British Film Institute preview screening in London) (0.7 percent; 4), or on an airplane as in-flight entertainment (0.2 percent; 1). A final 1.4 percent (8) listed other ways or places they had first seen this episode: Netflix (3 responses), BBC iPlayer (2), “Watched episode through media server from computer to TV.. torrented source”/”Torrent” (2), or “On television from a recording I got online” (1). Five respondents (0.9 percent) indicated they had (yet) not seen this episode.

The variety of ways these Sherlock fans watched a premiere episode increasingly involves a combination of devices, the majority of them in some way computerized or reliant on internet technology. The results of this survey support trends indicated by news articles from 2010-12 that discuss aspects of Internet piracy or changes in the ways audiences view programs.

In the New York Daily News, David Hinckley wrote that “most of us do not watch shows when they first air. We watch them later, with our own recordings, through the networks’ own websites and through services like Hulu, Netflix or on mobile apps,” a comment well illustrated by my survey’s respondents’ comments. This trend can create a problem for networks trying to sell advertising. When revenue models change, programming is affected, and the current broadcast model does not effectively account for all viewers watching a particular show.

The other aspect of watching television shows online is piracy and file sharing, methods through which fans living outside the UK may use to be able to watch Sherlock episodes as soon as they available or to be able to see the series in countries where it is not later broadcast. In a New York Times article, “Internet Pirates Will Always Win” (4 August 2012), Nick Bilton explained that, although piracy is a huge problem, broadcasters like HBO, whose Game of Thrones has been sometimes “downloaded illegally more times each week than it is watched on cable television,” still may not want to offer a series online to paid subscribers because it can make more money from cable operators.

My survey’s results support these authors’ statements but suggest not only how television viewing is changing but that broadcasters like BBC are lagging ever further in addressing the issues involved in making high-demand programs like Sherlock available to a global audience impatient to see new episodes immediately. Many US fans hope that, as BBC America now does with new episodes of Doctor Who, PBS may someday show Sherlock episodes within hours of their UK premiere, but such an arrangement does not help audiences in other countries who also want to see first-run episodes immediately.

Additional studies are needed to document how audiences watch their favorite programs, but even these few questions answered by a small sample of fans indicate that viewers from countries in which a popular program’s new episodes are delayed will find ways (sometimes illegally) to see episodes sooner than they may be legally broadcast in fans’ home country.

Who Are These Sherlock Fans?

Certainly, Sherlock’s audience is several million greater than the 565 people who took this survey, but they provide a glimpse into an online fandom eager to express their opinions. The majority taking this survey are female, under 30, and living in the US or UK. However, if the range of respondents to this survey is any indication, Sherlock fandom is much broader based than this summary indicates.

Although the majority of fans responding to this survey (91.3 percent; 516) are female, 6.4 percent (36) self-identified as male, and 2.3 percent (13) chose not to identify themselves as male or female.

The age range indicates that Sherlock fandom is not just for the young, despite slightly more than half of the fans taking this survey reporting they are under 30. After roughly one-third (32.6 percent; 184) in the 20-29 age range, the next highest percentage (21.2 percent; 120) is 15-19 years old, but the survey also attracted the youngest age group of fans: 2.5 percent (14) are 10-14. Slightly less than half of the respondents are over 30: 17.0 percent (96) are 30-39, and 15.9 percent (90) listed their age as 40-49. From there, the percentages drop quickly: 7.8 percent (44) are 50-59; 2.3 percent (13), 60-69; and 0.2 percent (1), 80 or older. Only three respondents (0.5 percent) preferred not to state their age. Online survey results often seem skewed toward a young demographic of digital natives, yet many fans who took this survey are of an age to make them digital immigrants, even if they are frequently online.

When asked to select their region of residence, 49.2 percent (278) chose North America, 44.9 percent (254) Europe, 5.7 percent (32) Australia/Oceana, 4.6 percent (26) Asia, 1.8 percent (10) South America, and 0.1 percent (1) Central America. To further specify their country of residence, 41.4 percent (241) listed they are from the US; 20.0 percent (113) England; 7.1 percent (40) France; 6.7 percent (38) Germany; 6.4 percent (36) Canada; 3.9 percent (22) Australia; 3.1 percent (18) Finland; 1.6 percent (9) Russia; 1.4 percent (8) Scotland or Brazil; and 1.1 percent (6) Wales, Italy, or Japan. Fewer than 1.0 percent reported living in New Zealand, India, Israel, Singapore, Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark, The Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Estonia, Honduras, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Northern Ireland, Philippines, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, or Trinidad and Tobago.

Although Sherlock is a UK television production and is shown there first, only about a quarter of survey participants are from the UK, a useful result to keep in mind when considering the ways these fans watch episodes.

The results provide a screenshot of the ways that fans of a globally popular, critically acclaimed television series now watch new episodes and the lengths they will go to be able to see them as soon as they are broadcast. While filming for Sherlock ‘s third season has been partially completed, and in light of audiences’ continuing high interest in one of BBC Worldwide’s most popular exports, perhaps the BBC and non-UK broadcasters can find ways to make Sherlock available sooner to its waiting audience. As one fan wrote in the “other” text box to explain the dilemma posed by watching new episodes immediately or waiting for a later television broadcast:

In terms of access, I would like a legal way to watch Sherlock online upon it being aired in the UK. I would watch ads beforehand, I would pay iTunes or Hulu, or the BBC, just please let me pay for a legal stream! Fandom waits for no one, and waiting months and months for an air date in the US is not an option.