Media: The bland leading the bland

If this year's festive television left you cold, you only have yourselves to blame. Schedulers believe viewers got just what they want for Christmas. By Meg Carter
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The Independent Culture
If you found yourself watching Noel's Christmas Presents and Auntie's Bloomers on Christmas Day, you were not alone. For, as regular as clockwork, the nation's media habits resort to seasonal stereotype at this time of year. Forget the competition for TV ratings, radio audiences or newspaper sales fought for the preceding 50 weeks - normal tastes and habits go out the window between Christmas and New Year.

Luckily for newspaper publishers, published sales data does not break down Christmas and New Year holiday consumption, but the reduced pagination of all national dailies has its own story to tell.

Radio listening, meanwhile, also tails off - to the extent that the audience research conducted by Rajar is annually suspended for two to three weeks at this time of year. Which is probably just as well given the number of stations whose playlists become dominated by Queen and Noddy Holder, and the general public's late-in-the-day conversion to actually liking Cliff Richard's "Millennium Prayer".

"Viewers' tastes and expectations change markedly at Christmas," says Steven Price, head of network scheduling analysis at ITV Network Centre. "Over the years, they have come to expect a family drama, a big movie and a special edition of their favourite sitcom."

That's why the mix of programming we enjoy at Christmas has changed little in decades. This year's festive menu comprised seasonal EastEnders, The Vicar of Dibley and David Copperfield on BBC1; seasonal Coronation Street and A Touch of Frost on ITV or Ali G's Alternative Christmas Message and a cabaret-style opera about the life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll on Channel 4.

Christmas ratings' crackers in the early Nineties were Only Fools and Horses, One Foot in the Grave and Birds of a Feather. A decade earlier it was Raiders of the Lost Ark and Porridge, while the Seventies were ruled by The Likely Lads, Dad's Army and Mastermind.

"The Christmas audience seems to have an endless capacity to watch ancient movies most of them have already seen before," a senior executive at one broadcaster laments. "We set out to give them what they want and, with few exceptions, this means bland fare. I often wonder if we could be bolder. But why waste a brilliant and serious documentary or original contemporary drama if Christmas viewers want undemanding fare? So that's what we do."

Those of us who watch The Queen's Speech, meanwhile, would rather do so without the ads. And scheduling tactics change to cater for this different viewing mindset.

"The usual 9pm watershed, for example, is diluted with mixed age groups watching longer and kids staying up later than is usually the case. The amount of flak the BBC got last year for its Christmas edition of Men Behaving Badly, which some people found too rude, indicates the more wholesome tone people expect later in the evening when watching TV at Christmas and New Year," says Steven Price.

Between Yule and New Year, there is relatively low demand from advertisers for commercial airtime, due to a belief that people are less in the mood to spend following their festive spending spree. Besides, grumbles one top-10 advertiser: "People watch passively with little involvement at this time of year - which has massive impact on the out-take for advertising. While ratings may look high, there's no guarantee anyone's watching. For although BARB viewing data records when a TV is on, it does not detect if a viewer is asleep, drunk or has left the room."

ITV switched tactics this year, however, with a more aggressive approach that included wheeling out seasonal editions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? not once, but three times on Christmas Day. With up to 19 per cent more people watching TV over the Christmas and New Year holiday period, Price says, there's just no excuse for commercial channels to throw in the towel - not least because the gameplan shifts once more with the arrival of Boxing Day.

Graeme Stanley, director of broadcasting for ONdigital, agrees. Research conducted for the company shows that TV audiences have planned more carefully the programmes they watch over Christmas and New Year. The study found 66 per cent of viewers at this time of year to be Sofa Strategists - carefully pre-selecting each day's viewing compared with just 14 per cent defined as Serious Surfers - people prone to channel-hopping - and 8 per cent known as Supines - those willing to watch anything friends or family want to see. As a result, Stanley believes commercial broadcasters still have everything to play for.

"Viewing figures quickly shift in commercial broadcasters' favour between Christmas and New Year," he says. BBC 1 may still be the place to turn for a special occasion - as a channel for reflection, but ITV is still regarded by many as the place for a celebration - the party channel. And it's no coincidence that, earlier this month, ITV persuaded a drinks firm, Diageo, to fork out pounds 1m to purchase all airtime in the last commercial break of 31 December and the first of 1 January.

With the new millennium just a few days away, attention is also turning to the titanic clash for ratings anticipated on Friday night. For while competition for viewers rises sharply the week after each Christmas, larger than usual numbers are expected to be watching TV this year as more people choose to stay at home due to inflated millennium- night prices and anticipated traffic congestion. In the blue corner, BBC 1 is promising the world's most ambitious live TV broadcast, 2000 Today, from 8.35pm on New Year's Eve through to 1.30pm on New Year's Day. ITV, meanwhile, is limbering up to show Countdown 2000 - a tighter affair airing from 10.55pm to 1.05am.

"The Christmas and New Year period remains a time for everyone to come together as a family and do the same thing. There is a heightened feeling of participation," Graeme Stanley adds. "People would find it grotesque to be in different corners of the house watching different programmes on different TVs - especially on New Year's Eve."

For the time being, at least.