Record numbers tune in to Channel 4 to see 'Lost', 'Big Brother' and cricket

The channel's winning streak is all the more remarkable at a time when the increasing choice offered by the growth of multi-channel television means that terrestrial broadcasters are steadily losing viewers.

In the middle of the summer, most broadcasters find themselves in the doldrums with viewers on holiday or enjoying the weather. Channel 4 has, however, bucked this trend with a combination of high-profile marketing, clever scheduling and a helping hand from England's performance at Old Trafford.

Between Monday 8 August and Sunday 14 August, it had an audience share of 13.7 per cent, a significant increase on its average of 9.8 per cent share. The channel has achieved similarly high ratings across a week only once before, in July 2002, when the third series of Big Brother was drawing to a close.

Friday was the highlight of the week for Channel 4, when the cricket combined with the final of Big Brother 6 to win a massive 20.4 per cent share of the audience, beating all other channels. At the peak of the final on Friday night, nearly eight million viewers watched the Geordie dancer Anthony Hutton take the £50,000 prize money, making it the most popular programme on Channel 4 this year so far.

While the average audience for the show was considerably lower than that recorded in 2004 - 6.7 million viewers compared to 8.3 million - the overall viewing figures for Friday were boosted by the 2.4 million who tuned in to watch the cricket - an impressive daytime audience.

Channel 4's massive marketing investment in Lost, a glossy new drama about 48 plane crash survivors stranded on a mysterious desert island, also paid off.

Drawn in by lavishly shot trailers directed by the fashion photographer David LaChapelle, 6.4 million viewers watched Lost at its peak on Wednesday night- the highest audience for the launch of a US show on Channel 4. Like Desperate Housewives, which proved a hit for the channel earlier this year, Lost was a canny acquisition from America's ABC network. In the US, 21 million viewers watched the finale of the first series.

Scheduling is another important factor in Channel 4's success. Last week a crucial episode of Big Brother was sandwiched between a Lost double bill.

The broadcaster has also benefited from a spin-off effect, with viewers who tune in to watch the cricket seeing trailers for other programmes and being persuaded to view.

In 2004, Channel 4 was the only terrestrial broadcaster to see its overall share of the audience increase, from 9.6 per cent to 9.8 per cent. This year to date the channel's share has slipped slightly, but it is still performing better than BBC1 and BBC2, which have both seen their share drop by 5 per cent, while ITV's share has fallen 7 per cent. In peak time, Channel 4 is enjoying its highest audience share of 10.6 per cent. A Channel 4 spokeswoman attributed the success to its "biggest ever investment in annual programming".

Graham Lovelace, a media consultant, said: "What Channel 4 has done is to show that there is still a place for a mixed genre, mass entertainment channel, but the crucial thing is to market, schedule and promote programmes professionally."

Conor Dignam, the editor of Broadcast magazine, believes the ratings performance raises questions over whether Channel 4 really is facing a massive funding-shortfall. He said: "It increases the scepticism about the worst-case scenario claims that Andy Duncan [the chief executive] has put out about how poorly Channel 4 will do over the next few years."

The top ten most watched shows

1: Woman of Substance (13.9m/4 January 1985)

The film adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford's novel.

2. Four Weddings and a Funeral (12.4m/15 November 1995)

Richard Curtis's comedy with Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas.

3. Gregory's Girl (10.8m/8 January 1985)

Bill Forysth's 1981 film starring John Gordon Sinclair about a young boy.

4. Big Brother 3 Final (10m/26 July 2002)

Won by Kate Lawler.

5. Cutting Edge "Shops & Robbers" (9.8m/14 February 1994)

A successful documentary.

6. Friends (9.6m/28 May 2004)

The last episode of the US sitcom achieved its best audience.

7. Big Brother 1 Final (9.5m/15 September 2000)

Won by Craig Coates.

8. Nuns on the Run (9.2m/18 April 1993)

The comic movie starring Robbie Coltrane.

9. Big Brother 5 Final (9m/6 August 2004)

Won by Nadia Almada.

10. Brookside (8.9m/31 January 1995)

The saga of Mandy and Beth Jordache and the body under the patio.

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