Christmas TV and how it's changed over recent years

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows were hugely popular in the 1970s and early1980s.
The Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows were hugely popular in the 1970s and early1980s.
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Christmas means different things to different people.

For some it’s all about overindulging in turkey and mince pies and watching grandma fall asleep after one sherry too many. To others, it’s a celebration of Advent, going to church for carol service and paying homage to the story of the nativity.

For many of us, though, the TV set is the focal point for their family during the festive period. So much so that going through the bumper edition of the Radio Times armed with a highlighter pen marking all the programmes and films you wanted to watch is an annual tradition.

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At least that used to be the case. Back in the 1970s the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials set the gold standard for years to come, drawing in audiences in excess of 20 million, as did Mike Yarwood (remember him?) and To The Manor Born, starring Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles.

Then there’s the famous Christmas episode of EastEnders in 1986, when 18.9 million (around 30 million if you include those who watched the repeat) tuned in to see Den serve Angie with divorce papers in the Queen Vic (what most of today’s TV execs wouldn’t give for even half that number).

Whatever our age, we tend to hark back to our childhood at this time of year because it evokes so many memories and watching the telly is one of them.

Yet on the one hand we hear people moaning about the festive TV schedule because there are too many repeats and then they complain if the Two Ronnies aren’t shown at some point.

TV has changed radically since the Seventies and Eighties and so has the way we sit and watch it. There’s a generational divide that didn’t exist even as recently as 20 years ago.

Many young people are glued to their smartphones and tablets where they’re more likely to be watching something on YouTube than one of the mainstream TV channels.

The reality is that there has not been a runaway hit in Christmas week since Only Fools and Horses pulled in 24.3 million viewers in 1996.

Since then, first Sky and then the competing attraction of the internet has whittled audiences away. The emergence of Netflix and Amazon Prime as producers of their own high-quality programmes has also made a further dent.

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And yet having said that, many of our TV traditions still hold true. Up and down the land, families time their Christmas dinner either to be finished in time for the Queen’s speech (Jeremy Corbyn must be one of the few people who doesn’t know what time it’s on at), or to start once her speech is over.

Last Christmas, more than seven million people watched the Queen’s speech on BBC One, ITV, Sky One and Sky News, making it the second most watched festive programme after Call the Midwife (which takes a prime time slot again this year) which had 8.7m viewers once on-demand figures were calculated.

The BBC has a long history of winning the Christmas Day TV battle, triumphing the majority of times over the past 30 years.

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The TV ratings war between the two channels may not have quite the same cache that it once had, but I bet the bosses of whichever channel comes out on top this year will still see it as a feather in their cap.

It’s true that no programme has won more than 20 million viewers since 2001, and the 15 million line has not been crossed since 2008, with the aminated Wallace and Gromit adventure, A Matter of Loaf and Death, but television does still matter.

We might be watching it in a different way to our parents and grandparents, but it still brings friends and families together and that’s what Christmas is all about really,isn’t it?