The top 20 TV programmes for the festive season

In the not-too-distant past, tradition dictated that the whole family watched television together on Christmas Day, but what we view and how we view it has undergone a transformation. Gerard Gilbert reports and selects the 20 programmes not to miss during the festive season

Boxing Day 2009 – a snapshot: It's early evening in a living room in East Sussex. A teenage boy lies sprawled along a sofa staring into his mobile phone as he watches the previous night's Doctor Who Christmas special. On the other side of the room, with his back to the other boy as he rocks back and forth on a swivel chair, another teenager is catching up with the previous night's EastEnders on a computer. In between the boys, switched off and as monolithically obsolete-seeming as Stonehenge, is a vast, unloved flat-screen TV.

To be fair, the television had been used earlier in the afternoon, as the boys and various other relatives took turns to swing imaginary gold clubs and tennis rackets as they played round after round of Wii Sport (and I have to say, my tennis serves have rarely been so deadly). There was some joking about how maybe tomorrow some us could partake of Wii Fit Plus – not cheap at £50 or so, but less expensive than joining a gym.

In the meantime, as the boys catch up on yesterday's television highlights, everyone else is crowded into a room that is semi-permanently set up as a home cinema. I had once casually remarked to my incredulous brother-in- law about never having seen The Shawshank Redemption, and he is now rectifying that omission with the Blu-ray version of Frank Darabont's prison movie classic. In Dolby Surround. And my local multiplex doesn't serve such large gin and tonics (if at all).

Click here or on the image for the top 20 festive TV programmes

Welcome to the modern TV Christmas. It's not quite what the broadcasters would have us believe in – the cosy myth of the whole extended family gathered round the telly, generation passing unto generation the tin of Quality Street, as we all enjoy, together, the special treats laid on for us (predominantly by the BBC). The reality is that many of us now experience an increasingly more fractured viewing experience. It seems that habits honed during the rest of the year – separate, niche, specialist – now increasingly spill over into the festive period.

Perhaps I belong to a particularly dysfunctional family, although it has to be said that on Christmas night itself we hark back to earlier traditions than television – to quizzes and parlour games like charades. And anyway, when did it become "functional" for television-watching to be so central to Christmas? OK, so as a teenager I recall that the absolute cut-off point for Christmas lunch, for myself and my younger siblings was the Top of the Pops special. The annual round-up of No 1 singles was sacrosanct to us – the rest of the stuff laid out in the special double-issue of the Radio Times, less so. Indeed, I was probably one of the minority of the British population that didn't watch Morecambe & Wise's 1977 Christmas Show (28 million did), or the same year's Mike Yarwood Show (28 million again).

The highest ever Christmas Day viewing figures were recorded in December 1986, when over 30 million tuned in to watch Dirty Den serve Angie with divorce papers on EastEnders, but the mass viewing habits continued right through the decade (26 million to watch Hilda Ogden leave Coronation Street in 1987) and into the Nineties (24 million tuning into the 1996 Only Fools and Horses Christmas special). They have however been in steady and rapid decline since the turn of the century. The most watched programme last Christmas, for example, was The Royle Family, with just 11.7 million viewers. Last year's EastEnders attracted less than half the audience as the corresponding episode a decade earlier. What happened? Greater choice, in short, and only a small part of that coming from the Noughties explosion in multi-channel TV.

Here's another snapshot – from perhaps 10 years ago. I'm at my sister's house and her teenage boys have to be coerced out of the living room for Christmas lunch. They're watching television, that's for sure, but nothing specially laid on for them by the BBC or (decreasingly over the years) by ITV. A whole gaggle of them is in fact absorbed in killing various digitalised opponents by way of the quick reaction of their thumbs. Welcome to the video-game generation.

If you didn't want to decapitate opponents with a chainsaw in Resident Evil 4, or disappear into a fantasy world of elves and dragons in World of Warcraft, you could always send your avatar out to work and play in The Sims. And never mind that the TV set is being bagged by an adult playing Wii because the whole industry has gone online now. Grab the laptop, find yourself a quiet room and log on.

An increasing number of grown-ups will also be online this Christmas – checking emails, shopping, Skyping relatives abroad, downloading the Rage Against the Machine Christmas single from iTunes and so on. And what are television companies offering in competition? The big Christmas movie perhaps?

There was a time, in the quaint old-fashioned, no-choice, not-so-long-ago, when the announcement of the big new Christmas movies on TV would be a national talking point. What long-released movie were we going to be pathetically grateful for this year? When, for example, 21 million viewers tuned into watch Crocodile Dundee on Christmas Day 1989, the film had already been released in the UK for three years. And it wasn't as if you couldn't rent it out on video.

These days a movie can be available online or on DVD, pirated or otherwise, sometimes before it's even reached our cinemas. And if you're one of the 10 million Sky subscribers (Avatar is the big one this year on Sky Movies Premiere) you may well have already seen it there first. Not that we're exactly being showered in first-run movies on TV this Christmas – with research (self-servingly undertaken by the DVD rental business LoveFilm), showing that 97 per cent of movies on television over the festive period will be repeats. The other three per cent (including Shrek the Third, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Enchanted) are all at least two years old. It's not a lot to get excited about in this day and age.

Then perhaps the Christmas lull is the perfect opportunity to catch up with our box-sets – those compendium collections of every single series of The Wire or The Sopranos or Mad Men that you have been promising yourself you'll finally get round to watching over the holiday. But if you were lucky enough to receive a box-set of Mad Men series one to three (rrp £59.99) this Christmas, then you're part of a shrinking market, for DVD sales are slumping thanks to movies delivered on-demand through web-enabled set-top boxes, games consoles, and now the iPad.

But surely the biggest technological, and thus cultural, shift affecting the old myth of the whole family gathered round watching television together is that TV viewing now fits in with the individual, and not the other way round. If you don't have, or don't want, Sky Plus – the fastest, easiest way yet invented for recording TV shows – then there are the online TV catch-up websites, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Player or 4oD – all of them available by way of your computer, your iPad or your PlayStation console.

But there is another factor that is militating against the whole family having a Morecambe and Wise, Seventies-style soirée – the X Factor you could call it, after last weekend's final of the Simon Cowell talent show, in which Christina Aguilera and her dancers provided a show more suited to a lap-dancing club, and Rihanna a stripped down to her undies for some raunchy gyrating (Ofcom is apparently looking into the matter).

Have our broadcasters, in short, lost the ability to judge what makes suitable family viewing? Has it all become too niche – BBC3 and E4 for the children, BBC4 for dad, Living for mum? And what happened to the watershed? I never watched EastEnders five years ago as I do now, so I'm possibly not the best person to judge, but that pre-watershed soap sometimes seems incredibly sexualised these days. And what we might comfortably watch, or choose what not to watch, as individuals becomes rather different when we are gathered in a family group of differing generations.

You're probably safe with Strictly Come Dancing, and several other programmes this Christmas (see our guide below), but would you comfortably sit down with your grandparents to watch a new comedy by Matt Lucas and David Walliams, the comedians who gave us the incontinent OAPs of Little Britain? Or happily watch EastEnders with an eight-year-old? Boundaries of what is acceptable change all the time of course, but not the embarrassment felt when sharing graphic content with a much older or younger viewer – or even with those of the same age but a different moral outlook. Yup, that's the extended family for you. One way or another, it feels to me as if the only family that will be sitting together and watching the same television will be the Royle Family.