Is the era of 'Christmas Day TV' coming to an end?
A bygone era: Morecambe & Wise were a Christmas TV staple in the 1970s.
With another fall in ratings for the top shows on the 'biggest TV day of the year', Research The Media's Richard Marks asks: is the issue the content, or a deeper change in what we now do on Christmas Day?
Firstly let me put my cards on the table. I am very far from being part of the 'TV is dead' brigade. Even a cursory look at my columns over the last couple of years will show that I firmly believe TV has a vibrant cross-platform future.
However, this does not mean that the nature of the medium cannot change and mutate as it grows, and when I first saw the UK overnight viewing figures for Christmas Day 2014 my first reaction was that they could mark a defining point of change in one aspect of the UK television landscape.
As a child in the 1970s nothing caused more excited anticipation of Christmas in our home than the appearance of four wire coat hangers and a couple of magazines in mid December. The coat hangers, with added tinsel and candles, formed the Blue Peter advent crown, which meant there were just four episodes left until Christmas Day.
The listings magazines were the bumper two-week Christmas and New Year editions of the Radio Times and the TV Times (you had to buy both back then to get all the channels listings).
Christmas TV was the centrepiece of the late 20th Century British Christmas. When I entered the industry in the late 80s people still talked in awed tones of the 20 million who watched the Christmas Day Morecambe & Wise shows in the 70s. A very different TV landscape obviously, but even at the start of this decade Christmas Day shows were still getting overnight audiences in excess of 10 million.
Looking outside the UK, this concept of Christmas Day as the pinnacle of the annual TV schedule has always been something of an anomaly, a strangely British quirk."
Looking outside the UK, this concept of Christmas Day as the pinnacle of the annual TV schedule has always been something of an anomaly, a strangely British quirk. In the US, arguably the most TV-centric nation on earth, the Christmas episodes of regular series air in early December and then the TV industry effectively goes on holiday till January - on air as well as off - as the Christmas and New Year schedules resemble tumbleweed blowing through a remote Nebraska mining town.
Partly, this is because TV advertisers had little interest in advertising once the Christmas purchases had been made. Partly, it's because people do other things on Christmas Day.
There are echoes of that in the UK, where ITV has always been slightly less keen on festive programming than the BBC, with advertisers less disposed to buy space whilst the shops are shut. Nonetheless, the perceived wisdom - with BARB data as evidence - has always been that families feast on a bumper day of Christmas fare from the Queen onwards.
We love our Christmas telly. Don't we?
Well, looking at the overnights for Christmas Day 2014 one does wonder whether the era of the Great British Christmas Day TV Binge is coming to an end. Perhaps it was always an anomaly anyway.
Some stats: On Christmas Day 2010 three shows on the day achieved overnights of over 10m. No shows have managed that since, whilst for Christmas Day 2014 the top single broadcast, Mrs Brown's Boys, had an overnight rating of just 7.6m, with EastEnders the only other show over 7m.
The consolidated ratings boosted these considerably, but with no shows breaking the 10m mark. Within this were some noticeable consolidated drops year on year - Mrs Brown's Boys down 1.8m, Dr Who down 2.8m, Downton Abbey down by 1.7m.
To put this in context, on Monday 5 January, the first day of the new TV season, ITV broadcast two shows (Coronation Street and Broadchurch) with overnight ratings that matched anything on Christmas Day.
Four episodes of EastEnders since Christmas Day have topped anything shown on 25 December.
So what is going on?
The obvious answer is that with a plethora of ways to catch up on missed programmes, the immediacy of watching on the actual day is diminished. This is clearly having an effect. As we are repeatedly told: forget the overnights.
Just before Christmas, HBO announced in the States that as of 1 Jan 2015 it will no longer be distributing overnight ratings - if you want to know the ratings to one of their shows you will have to wait until the consolidateds. This is a logical move, particularly for a network that heavily features the most timeshifted genres.
Are the trends we are seeing actually driven by a societal shift - a gradual cultural change in what people do on Christmas Day and the importance of the TV schedule within that?"
We should certainly be less focused on the Christmas overnights nowadays, but even the consolidated ratings show significant declines over the last decade, so it's not that simple.
iPlayer had another record Christmas period in terms of access, so some people may have been accessing TV on the new devices they unwrapped under the tree, with mobiles and tablets not yet included in the BARB ratings.
However, some commentators have rightly highlighted the staleness of the Christmas Day schedules in recent years. Looking back at the last few years it really is hard to tell the schedules apart. Strictly, Corrie, Eastenders, Dr Who and Emmerdale have been December 25 ever-presents for the last decade, joined more recently by Downton, Midwife and Mrs Brown. Even Morecambe & Wise only managed 11 Christmas shows in total and they took 1974 off!
In this context, the gifts the Christmas schedulers give us seem less like mysterious shapes under the tree to be keenly unwrapped, and more like that inevitable box of After Eights from Auntie Madge. It feels like we can now recognise the shape of the schedule too easily, so we leave it for another day to unwrap the programmes. As a result the 'event' feel of the Christmas schedules has been lost as the same big guns are wheeled out every year.
By way of contrast, it surfaced on Twitter just before Christmas that the 1972 ITV festive schedule was so high octane that the IBA (think Ofcom with sideburns and flares) actually urged them to think again.
Allegedly the IBA found the programmes 'too entertaining and frivolous'. The article, headed 'Christmas "Killjoy" Curb on ITV Plans' claimed "the Authority has in fact suggested that Verdi's opera Macbeth will be more suitable viewing on Christmas night than, for example a Benny Hill show...". I am sure the IBA would have approved of Downton Abbey.
At heart though, I suspect the change is more deep-rooted than the programmes themselves, or timeshifting and catch-up services. Are the trends we are seeing actually driven by a societal shift? A gradual cultural change in what people do on Christmas Day and the importance of the TV schedule within that?
It may be the quaint British anomaly that is The Christmas Day TV Binge is fading away, bringing us into line with the rest of the world. Not because television is 'dying' - it isn't - or because of the rise of online video or Netflix, but simply that, over time, people change their behaviour and maybe, just maybe, more people want to spend Christmas evening doing other things.
In fact, the sort of things people in other countries have always managed without the need to fall asleep in front of the TV.
Rather than beating ourselves up about the fall in the ratings, or the Daily Mail working itself into a lather yet again, perhaps the nature of Christmas is changing and broadcast TV now has less of a role to play than it did. Still a strong day for TV, but one of many strong days, as opposed to the angel on the top of the annual ratings tree.
Richard Marks is director of Research The Media.
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