When I was a child, December 25th was the most anticipated day on the TV calendar. You could be sure of a blockbuster film premiere – back in the days before VCRs, DVD boxsets and illegal downloads, it could take as long as five years for the biggest movies to make it on to TV – and seasonal specials of the family’s favourite shows. The TV set took pride of place alongside the tree and the dinner table as one of the key places around which the entire family would congregate on Christmas Day.
How times have changed.
The golden age of Christmas TV
BBC and ITV used to throw the kitchen sink at Christmas.
In the 1970s light entertainment ruled the airwaves, with Christmas specials featuring Morecambe and Wise and Mike Yarwood drawing in audiences of 28 million. That’s nearly half the UK population watching BBC1 at the same time.
The 1980s saw the rise of the soap opera Christmas mega-misery mega-cliffhanger. 19.5 million watched on Christmas Day as Den Watts served Angie with divorce papers on Eastenders in 1986 (with nearly 12 million more watching the omnibus repeat). These were interspersed with the occasional hit film premiere: 21.8m tuned in to see Crocodile Dundee in 1989.
A downhill trend
But since the dawn of the new millennium, the audience trend has headed inexorably downhill. The 418th Only Fools and Horses Christmas special in 2001 (I lost count, there were so many) raked in 21.35m viewers, making it the most viewed programme of the entire year, but it would take 11 years – and a London Olympics – until any programme on any day (let alone Christmas) would again top 21 million.
2002’s OF&H special was again the most watched show of the year, but with a significantly reduced audience of 17.4m. And in only two of the last ten years has a Christmas Day programme topped the annual audience ratings: Eastenders in 2007 (14.38m) and Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf & Death in 2008 (16.15m). This year’s ratings champion, Eastenders, accounted for just 11.3 million viewers. (More on that in a minute.)
It’s no surprise, really. With multichannel offerings causing audiences to fragment, film DVDs now on sale months rather than years after their initial release and people abandoning the TV in favour of their latest XBox game, boxset or at the very least using PVRs to time-shift their viewing, Christmas telly simply isn’t the same draw it used to be.
Consequently, BBC and ITV have visibly switched their policy to throwing Christmas into the kitchen sink. For 2012, seasonal specials – which, importantly, can be profitably exported to international broadcasters – still dominated the prime-time slots. The BBC rolled out heavy-hitters Eastenders, Call the Midwife, Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who and The Royle Family, while ITV countered with Downton Abbey, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. However, both their imported movie offerings were typically low-key and family-oriented (Shrek Forever After on BBC1) or even repeats (Toy Story on ITV1). There’s no point in the terrestrial broadcasters attempting to compete with DVDs or the plethora of movie channels available on Sky – other channels or media simply have bigger guns.
As usual, even allowing for time-shifted viewing which takes into account people watching recorded programming or online in the week following initial transmission, the BBC dominated the ratings battle on Christmas Day:
1. Eastenders (BBC1) 11.31m viewers
2. Downton Abbey (ITV1) 10.28m
3. Call the Midwife (BBC1) 10.18m
4. Coronation Street (ITV1) 10.16m
5. The Royle Family (BBC1) 9.90m
6. Doctor Who (BBC1) 9.87m
7. Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1) 9.17m
8. Emmerdale (ITV1) 7.12m
9. The Queen (BBC1/ITV1) 6.58m
10. BBC News (BBC1) 6.34m
A meagre 11.3m viewers for Eastenders continued the recent decline. Indeed, according to the overnight ratings more people (12.1m) tuned in at midnight to see in 2013 on BBC1’s New Year Live. And more than twice as many (24.5m) watched 2012’s most popular programme, the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.
Equally interesting – if you’re of an analytical bent like myself, that is – is the comparison between the ‘overnight’ ratings, which count only ‘live’ viewers, and the final consolidated ratings which take into account time-shifted viewing over a seven-day period (via Sky+, PVRs, iPlayer et cetera). This reveals just how significant (and growing) a proportion of viewers watch at their own convenience. This is particularly the case for drama and comedy shows – news and soap viewers are far more likely to watch live – with around one in four viewers of Downton, Midwife, Who and the Royles watching anywhere from a few minutes to a few days after the initial transmission. (That reminds me, I still haven’t watched The Royle Family special yet.) So it’s not just the Doctor who uses his own time machine these days!
Going forwards, the story only ends one way. The days of entire families sitting rapt around the box on Christmas Day are long dead. It’s still an important day in the calendar where TV audiences are significantly higher than normal (it is still a non-working day for the vast majority of people, after all), but these days Christmas – at least as far as the programme schedulers are concerned – is really nothing all that special.