Long live the festive TV schedule

...and all the other telly schedules for that matter. People have been predicting for years that technology will destroy them. Oddly, it’s just making them hardier, says Rhodri Marsden.

A Marsden Christmas tends to feature at least one argument over the merit or otherwise of Noel Edmond's Channel 4 quiz show Deal or no Deal. While the rest of the family considers it essential viewing, I'll embark on a tedious yuletide lecture about odds and probability while cursing the superstitious balderdash of Edmonds and wondering what's on the other channels. But hey – disagreements over television choices are still part of a traditional Christmas for many British households.

It's not meant to be like this any more, though. The smart-TV revolution is gathering pace, bringing us not only a huge selection of online media, but also giving us direct access to catch-up TV services that, at least in theory, should spell an end to spats over what's currently on the box.

Recent figures from John Lewis show that internet-enabled televisions accounted for 62 per cent of TV purchases in 2012 – and, perhaps surprisingly, around 60 per cent of owners are actually firing up the built-in Wi-Fi and making use of that connectivity.

Whether it's tweets being sent from a Philips TV with a neat Qwerty keyboard embedded in the reverse of the remote, or films being downloaded from Netflix on a Samsung set, the flexibility of the smart telly is hauling us back into the living room. "Smart TVs will be essential for consumers to take advantage of entertainment whenever and wherever they want it," says John Kempner, the buyer for vision at department store John Lewis.

But – if you'll forgive the slightly absurd question – do we actually want entertainment whenever and wherever we want it? While catch-up services are hugely popular, we're more beholden to the TV schedules than we think we are. Studies show that 90 per cent of all viewing still happens live and of the 10 per cent that doesn't, half happens within a couple of days of broadcast. Compare that to a survey done four years ago by Tiscali, which found that 79 per cent of us agreed that within a decade there would be no TV schedules at all, just libraries of programmes that we could choose at will.

Today – nearly halfway to that date – scheduling shows little sign of diminishing in importance. "Every time I get a job in scheduling somebody says to me that I'm going to be the last," says George Dixon, controller of channel management at Channel 4. "They assume that in two years' time, no one will care about what we or my team put on at certain times. But we can see how trends are developing in reality. Yes, people record, play back and catch up, but the majority of the audience still comes from live viewing."

As a result, and despite the plethora of time-shifting options available to us, scheduling tends to come in for a great deal of media scrutiny at this time of year. The biggest "news" was that two particular shows – ITV's Downton Abbey and the BBC's Call the Midwife – would not be running head to head. The nation was presumably supposed to emit a colossal sigh of relief, but Dan McGolpin, head of BBC 1 scheduling, says that this example is a red herring.

"In the case of Midwife it was commissioned for an 8pm pre-watershed slot, and Downton has traditionally been 9pm," McGolpin says. "So there was never any real desire on our part to clash. And as far as TV technology is concerned, it's nice to know it's there, but it doesn't fundamentally change our decisions."

Rather than threatening their jobs, scheduling departments now see technology as complementing the schedules. "If people watch Made in Chelsea live on Channel 4 and a load more watch it on 4OD that's still viewers to the show and we can still monetise that," Dixon says.

McGolpin gives a similar verdict from a BBC perspective. "It's about people having the best experience they can; if they want to catch up at their own convenience then that's a positive thing. We now get Live Plus 7 figures that take into account all kinds of catch-up viewing, and that gives us a much more rounded view of how a show is performing across all these new technologies."

The strongest evidence of our continued fondness for the festive schedule is to be found in our Christmas movie choices.

Our smart TVs and set-top boxes give us unprecedented access to any number of films on demand and yet we're highly likely to settle down on Christmas Day and watch The Fellowship of the Ring on Channel 4, purely because the TV schedule instructs us to do so.

One of the reasons for this behaviour has been repeatedly demonstrated across social media in recent years: we love to watch programmes at the same time as each other and either discuss the programme in real time or shortly afterwards. "People want to talk about television," Dixon says. "It's a massive part of cultural life in this country. In the past you'd have talked to your family about it, but now you might be tweeting about it, or on Facebook."

Social networks such as Zeebox exist purely to facilitate this desire and our keenness to avoid spoilers is driving us to watch shows when they air for the first time.

The irony of this – that the technology which supposedly heralded the death of TV scheduling is now cementing it in place – isn't lost on McGolpin.

"Not enough people have picked up on this," he says. "For Sports Personality of the Year the other night, you could see people on social media talking about it and it ended up driving people to this big BBC 1 event."

McGolpin is eagerly anticipating figures from the post-Christmas period, as people start to access iPlayer through smart television sets in order to dip back into the rich schedule of Christmas programming.

"It's going to be really interesting, as is the really big growth in tablet use that we're seeing at the moment," he says.

But what's indisputable is that we're a long, long way from falling out of love with our telly – smart or otherwise. "It's such a powerful part of people's lives," Dixon says. "Things may grow around television, but it's an evergreen medium."

10.00am

Every family's Christmas Day is different but, for many the Christmas Day TV schedule can prove a focal point. Here's how your day could pan out with on-demand TV – starting with opening your pressies at 10am.

14.00

At 2pm, 'Top of the Pops' makes its sad little annual return to our screens. Either watch live in the pre-meal lull (unless you're cooking), or, if you start watching at 2.10pm, you can fast forward through Reggie and Fearne's chit-chat.

15.00

The Queen makes her usual cameo in the homes of the nation at 3pm. If you're sitting down for Christmas lunch why not stick her on iPlayer at 10pm and play a port-fuelled game of "Queenie Bingo"?

16.30

If you missed Channel 4's sequel to The Snowman, The Snowman and the Snowdog, when it aired on Christmas Eve, sit the kids down after dinner and bung it on 4oD. No crying at the back.

18.15

Sherry down, board games quickly exhausted, time for everyone to collapse in front of the telly and watch 'Strictly'. Or, if you'd prefer, head for the kitchen and the rinse the roasting tin.

20.45

Time for the big non-clash of the winter as 'Downton Abbey' follows 'Call The Midwife' (there was originally a DVR-friendly carry-over between the two).

22.00

Kids in bed – time to pre-empt their Boxing Day fun and watch the 'Doctor Who' Christmas special? Or finally get started on series two of 'The Killing'... or that BBC 4 documentary about The Kinks that's been sitting on your hard drive for eight months....

Will Dean

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