Strictly, EastEnders, Doctor Who: Why the Christmas TV schedules are always a repeat

As broadcasters gear up to woo the festive viewer, Adam Sherwin discovers how much effort goes into preparing a cocktail of programmes that will satisfy the turkey-stuffed masses, if not the cynics

Looking for something original to watch this Christmas amid the same old schedule of Strictly specials and seasonal spin-offs? Perhaps Alastair Campbell has the solution.

“Someone should do a family sitcom titled 'Why is all the Christmas telly crap?’,” the spin doctor tweeted in a moment of festive despondence last year.

It’s a tradition as old as mince pies and over-indulgence. Each Christmas millions of turkey-sated viewers slump in front of their wide-screens. And each time the groan goes up, “this is the worst Xmas telly ever.”

Ratings for the biggest seasonal “treats” are beginning to slide. The audience is fragmenting, with box-fresh new gaming consoles and tablet devices competing for a stupefied nation’s eyeballs. Catch-up services mean even that must-see James Bond premiere is no longer an appointment to view.

The BBC’s 2013 Christmas schedule, announced this week, featuring a revival of classic sitcom Open All Hours and special episodes of The Great British Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee, prompted complaints that it relied too heavily upon unchallenging fare and special editions of tried and tested programmes.

But for the broadcasters unveiling their festive wares, the Christmas schedule is the result of months, if not years, of planning to concoct the most family-friendly mix of movies, comedy and drama, drip-feeding new commissions amid old favourites and constructed after close scrutiny of the public’s tastes.

“Christmas schedule planning actually begins two or three years in advance,” reveals Dan McGolpin, head of BBC1 scheduling. “Dramas take a long time to get to air and blockbuster films are tied in years in advance. There’ll be a meeting in January with the genre commissioners and channel controllers where we’ll look at Christmas 2015 and beyond.”

“We’re looking for a balance between drama, new family films, new factual programmes and comedy. We’ll look at where there are gaps. We need to be strong in every area.”

If viewers don’t like what they get, then they only have themselves to blame. “We do a lot research into what viewers want to see,” Mr McGolpin said. “People expect to see the biggest shows at Christmas. Our aim is to offer something for everybody so the licence-fee payer gets value for money.”

Last Christmas, the number of people watching the Christmas schedule “tentpoles” -  EastEnders and Doctor Who on BBC1 and Downton Abbey on ITV - was down on previous years.

But when viewing figures on catch-up services were included, the figures soared, with Downton Abbey, adding 3 million viewers to reach a total of 10 million.

This doesn’t mean that those sought-after Christmas Day viewers are simply snoring on the sofa. “There is a fantastic amount of catch-up viewing now in the weeks later but the nation still gets together on Christmas day and they expect ‘event TV’,” Mr McGolpin said.

The BBC has scheduled two Twitter “talking points” for Christmas night, to combat post-turkey slumber – the arrival of Danny Dyer as the Queen Vic’s new landlord in EastEnders, typically the highest-rated show on the day and the regeneration of Matt Smith into Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who.

Christmas is not the day to launch “experimental new drama,” Mr McGolpin concedes. But the BBC seeks to nudge new successes into the spotlight, amid fixtures such as the Strictly special, to prevent the schedule becoming sclerotic. The BBC1 sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys, which now attracts 15 million viewers, will air on Christmas Day for the first time – “a real coup,” said Mr McGolpin.

Because of the huge pool of available viewers, Christmas can be used to test a format revival. Still Open All Hours, in which Sir David Jason reprises his role as Granville, who has now inherited the corner shop from his uncle Arkwright, is effectively a “pilot” which may result in a series.

The BBC’s new offerings include PD James’ Pride and Prejudice sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, starring Matthew Rhys as Darcy and David Walliams’ children’s story, Gangsta Granny.

The return of Sherlock, where viewers will discover how the sleuth survived a much speculated-upon plunge, will be deployed by BBC1 on New Year to give its January ratings a rocket boost.

ITV, due to confirm its holiday schedule next week, is used to taking a pasting in the overnight ratings.

But the BBC’s commercial rival has the terrestrial premiere of Harry Potter and The Deadly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2, lined up against the BBC’s outings for Toy Story 3 and Kung Fu Panda.

ITV relies upon its soaps and full-length Downton Abbey special – starring Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti on this occasion -  to break BBC1’s hold over the Christmas “most-watched” list. But ITV also has new Marple and Midsomer Murders dramas to sprinkle across its schedule.

Sky 1 HD has invested in Moonfleet, a two-part family drama starring Ray Winstone as the leader of a band of 17th century smugglers, penned by Life on Mars writer Ashley Pharoah.

Winstone told The Independent he hoped Moonfleet would become a future Christmas “classic”. “I think it’s great to have something new that’s a bit fresh for Christmas,” the actor said. “But sometimes you just want to wrap up in a blanket and watch ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas’ with Bing Crosby. For those of us who’ve lost parents you want those Christmas memories and to have a little cry.”

Winstone added: “If they repeat something you were in, then you get paid for it too.”

Although shows can now be viewed anytime, Mr McGolpin and his ITV counterpart still seek to avoid direct clashes which annoy viewers. Draft schedules are exchanged in advance of their confirmation so that Call The Midwife doesn’t step on Downton’s coat-tails.

The alternative, for broadcasters who don’t wish to expend money and energy chasing festive viewers, is to follow Channel 5’s example.

Last year, Richard Desmond’s channel filled its Christmas evening with three programmes about the haulier Eddie Stobart, none of which made the nation’s top ten.

BBC1 Xmas Day 2012

2.00pm Top of the Pops Christmas Special

3.00pm The Queen        

3.10pm Film : Shrek Forever

4.35pm Room on the Broom animation 

5.00pm BBC News & Weather   

5.15pm Doctor Who – The Snowmen

6.15pm Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special

7.30pm Call the Midwife

8.45pm EastEnders Christmas 2012         

9.45pm The Royle Family

BBC 1 Xmas Day 2013 (Expected line-up)

Top of the Pops Christmas Special

The Queen

Film: Toy Story 3

Gangsta Granny

BBC News

Doctor Who – The Time of the Doctor

Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special

Call The Midwife

EastEnders Christmas 2013

Mrs Brown’s Boys

Xmas 2013 highlights

Gangsta Granny – BBC1

Julia McKenzie, Joanna Lumley, Rob Brydon and Miranda Hart bring to life David Walliams’ best-selling children’s novel, about a boy who goes to live with his international jewel thief gran.

Downton Abbey – ITV

Shirley MacLaine returns as Cora’s mother Martha and Sideways star Paul Giamatti makes his Downton debut as her playboy brother in two-hour special, now a seasonal staple.

Doctor Who : Time of the Doctor – BBC1

Matt Smith makes way for Peter Capaldi in regeneration scene precision-tooled to deliver a Christmas Day viewing peak for BBC1.

Moonfleet – Sky 1

Sky gets in on the Xmas blockbuster action with swashbuckling 18th century tale starring Ray Winstone as the leader of a band of smugglers after Blackbeard’s treasured diamond.

Christmas University Challenge – BBC2

Rory Bremner, Green party leader Nathalie Bennett, political pundit Mehdi Hasan, radio presenter Fi Glover and shadow Justice minister Dan Jarvis put their reputations on the line in graduates special.

Birds of a Feather – ITV

Fifteen years after hit sitcom was axed by the BBC, Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke reprise their roles on ITV in new series written by original creators Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.

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