Plotting Doctor Who Ratings (1963-2011) with R

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First day back to work after New Year celebrations and my brain doesn’t really want to think too much. So I went out for lunch and had a nice walk in the park. Still had 15 minutes to kill before my lunch break was over and so decided to kill some time with a quick web scraping exercise in R.


Download the last 49 years of British TV ratings data for the programme Doctor Who (the longest-running science fiction television show in the world and which is also the most successful science fiction series of all time, in terms of its overall broadcast ratings, DVD and book sales and iTunes traffic) and make a simple plot of it.


Ratings are available from as a series of page separated tables. This means that we can use the RCurl and XML packages to download the first seed webpage, extract the table of ratings, and use XPath to get the weblink to the next page of ratings. Due to time constraints I’m not going to optimise any of this (though given the small data set it probably doesn’t need optimisation anyway).


get_doctor_who_ratings <- function() {
  # load packages

  # return Title, Date and Rating
  format_df <- function(df) {
    data.frame(Date = as.POSIXlt(df$Date, format = "%a %d %b %Y"),
               Title = df$Title,
               Rating = as.numeric(gsub("(\\s+).*", "\\1", df$Rating)),
               stringsAsFactors = FALSE)

  # scrape data from web
  get_ratings <- function(u) {
    df.list <- list()
    i <- 1
    while(!is.null(u)) {
      html <- getURL(u)
      doc <- htmlParse(u)
      df.list[[i]] <- readHTMLTable(doc, header = TRUE, which = 1, stringsAsFactors = FALSE) <- as.vector(xpathSApply(doc, "//div[@class='nav']/a[text()='NEXT']/@href"))
      if(is.null( {
      u <- sub("info.*",, u)
      i <- i + 1

  ### main function code ###
  # Step 1: get tables of ratings for each page that is avaiable
  u <- ""
  df.list <- get_ratings(u)

  # Step 2: format ratings into a single data.frame
  df <-"rbind", df.list)
  df <- format_df(df)

  # Step 3: return data.frame

Using the above, we can pull the ratings into a single data.frame as follows:

# get ratings database
ratings.df <- get_doctor_who_ratings()

# Date Title Rating
# 1 1979-10-20 City of Death - Episode 4 16.1
# 2 1979-10-13 City of Death - Episode 3 15.4
# 3 1979-09-22 Destiny of the Daleks - Episode 4 14.4
# 4 1979-10-06 City of Death - Episode 2 14.1
# 5 1979-09-15 Destiny of the Daleks - Episode 3 13.8
# 6 1975-02-01 The Ark In Space - Episode 2 13.6



We can plot this data very easily using the Hadley Wickman’s ggplot2 package:

# do a raw plot
ggplot(ratings.df, aes(x=Date, y=Rating)) + geom_point() + xlab("Date") + ylab("Ratings (millions)") + opts(title = "Doctor Who Ratings (1963-Present) without Context")

The gap in the data is due to the show having been put on permanent hiatus between 1989 and 2005 with the exception of the american episode in 1996.


This was just a fun coding exercise to quickly pass some time.

The chart above should not be directly interpreted without the proper context as it would be very misleading to suggest that that show was more popular in earlier years than in later years. Bear in mind that TV habits have changed dramatically over the past 50 odd years (I myself barely watch TV live any more and instead make use of catchup services like BBC iplayer which the ratings above to do not account for), that there were fewer channels back in 1963 in Britain, the way BARB collect ratings, and that the prestige of the show has changed over time (once an embarrassment for the BBC with all of it’s criminally low budgets and wobbly sets, to now being one of it’s top flagship shows).

A final note

Although I was part of the generation during which Doctor Who was taken off the air, I do vaguely remember some episodes from my childhood where The Doctor was played by Sylvester McCoy, who to this day is still “my doctor” (as the saying goes) and I would put him right up there with Tennent and Smith as being one of the greats. Best. Show. Ever.

You can find a quick review of series six (i.e. the sixth series of episodes since the show’s return in 2005) right here, and because I love the trailer so much I’ll embed it below:

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