ITV versus BBC One: Which channel will win this year’s Christmas TV war?

It’s Paul O’Grady up against Agatha Christie. And everyone else.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Christmas Day television is meant to be a competitive sport. Historically, ITV and BBC One pulled out the heavy hitters in terms of special episodes of popular series, and cannily scheduled events such as film premieres.

Thames Television’s tempting of Morecambe and Wise from the BBC in the late Seventies was so that the broadcaster could capture Christmas. In the Eighties, an ITV Christmas Day screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark received 19.3 million viewers, and the showing of Airplane! the next day 18.1 million. Both were among the ten most watched things on television all year.

Television ratings are down across the board since their peak in the 1970s, and to compare any  modern-day programme’s viewers to those for these films, or even to a 1984 Christmas week edition of Bullseye (with 17.6 million, a figure higher than for anything shown this decade that wasn’t part of the 2012 London Olympics) is inherently unfair.

That’s why looking at the top 10 programmes, on a channel, on Christmas Day itself, during Christmas week and across the whole year, is fairer. In theory, we’re comparing like with like. It’s generally agreed that viewing figures have slumped proportionately across the decades, and even if they haven’t, at least everyone is facing the same pressures.

As the pressures have changed, so have the routes to success. Film premieres saw a situation where the more resourced ITV could outbid the BBC for material that was already a known success. They are no longer events.

Movie channels, multi-channel, the rise and fall of mass ownership of VHS and DVD and the advent of streaming have rendered terrestrial premieres of films redundant. While recent Disney films such as Brave (2015) and Toy Story 3 (2006) have been Christmas Day hits in the last ten years, they’ve always been afternoon screenings of films aimed specifically at children, the audience who most like repeatedly viewing the same material.

There was justifiable pride at ITV last year that it generated headlines by “winning” the Christmas Day ratings battle, thanks to the Downton Abbey special being Christmas Day’s most-watched programme.

That victory, though, hid an inherent weakness. Its only other entries in the Christmas Day top 10 were an episode of Coronation Street and The Queen’s Christmas Message; the latter a programme shared with, and simulcast on, BBC One and for which it can hardly take credit. (It is, relatedly, both counterintuitive and rather interesting that Her Majesty’s Christmas Message has been a permanent fixture in the top ten Christmas Day programmes for the last 15 years, having appeared in it far more sporadically in years prior.)

ITV’s own top 10 for Christmas week told the same story. Downton Abbey, five episodes of Coronation Street and four episodes of Emmerdale. One big hit, but only three programmes; no breadth and no depth. Besides, the soaps are not the ratings powerhouses they were in the Nineties, although it is easy to assume that they are. An episode of Coronation Street hasn’t troubled the top 10 most-watched programmes of the year since 2011; Emmerdale hasn’t featured since 2004.

This year, ITV’s Christmas Day schedule is more of the same, minus the one big hit. More Emmerdale, more Coronation Street and, puzzlingly, more Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs at Christmas: a programme that last year was outside ITV’s own top 10 for the week, outside the top 30 overall and would have landed slap in the middle of the top 10 programmes on BBC Two. Which was largely devoted to repeats of decades-old Christmas specials, and Mastermind.

ITV’s most impressive programme of the day is Maigret. The adaptations of Georges Simenon’s novels, starring Rowan Atkinson, got off to an excellent start in March this year, but hasn’t been seen since. While well-played, and handsomely photographed, Maigret can hardly be considered something for which the nation is waiting in rapt anticipation. It is likely few viewers even remember it. Given that it’s starting two thirds of the way through Call the Midwife (Christmas Day top 10, often top 5, material since 2012), it has no chance.

ITV’s 2016 drama was unusually impressive, but none – except Victoria – seem to have struck a chord with audiences. It is easy to imagine the planned 2017 Christmas Day special of that, centring on Prince Albert’s role in the invention of the modern Christmas.

Over on BBC One, however, there is such bounty that the channel has been able to dispense with the Christmas Day tradition of Double EastEnders. Christmas Day primetime offers Call the Midwife, Doctor Who, EastEnders, The Great British Bake Off, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Strictly Come Dancing. All can be considered “beloved” series, and proven ratings successes. All except EastEnders, and nominally Doctor Who, launched in the present century.

There is also variety across BBC One’s schedule. From light drama to comedy, to heavy drama via factual entertainment and adventure. Nothing there is likely to appeal to everyone, but there is something for everyone on offer.

The week after Christmas offers equally asymmetric warfare. On Boxing Day and Bank Holiday Tuesday, BBC One has Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, from the team who made last Christmas’ hit adaptation of And Then There Were None. Boxing Day also brings more Bake Off and specials of sitcoms Still Open All Hours (one of the ten most-watched programmes of 2012, and a hit since) and Outnumbered.

ITV has more Coronation Street, more Emmerdale, more You’ve Been Framed! and films that will already have been seen by anyone who is even vaguely interested. Wednesday 28 December sees a feature length Jonathan Creek, and the Raymond “The Snowman” Briggs animation Ethel and Ernest on BBC One, but yet more Emmerdale, a ten-year-old film, and another chance to catch up with Paul O’Grady’s canines on ITV.

As the New Year rolls round, BBC One will unleash a new series of Sherlock, the most-watched drama series of 2014, and almost certainly 2016 and 2017 as well. No drama this year has yet topped the 11.6 million garnered by its New Year’s Day 2016 special.

In a lot of households, the acquisition of the Christmas issue of the Radio Times and/or TV Times is still a ritual: marking up the festive television schedule with a highlighter pen, noting must-watches and maybe-watches and possible areas of conflict between the channels.

Programme clashes are easier to avoid now than they used to be: ITV has its +1 channels and online catch up, BBC has iPlayer and lots of people have hard-drive recorders, which can be set in advance far more reliably, and to record far more programmes, than the VHS decks they replaced.

This year, however, that problem has gone away. ITV has hoisted a white flag before the festivities have begun, and surrendered Christmas Day television to BBC One in advance.