Forty years ago Sunday Night at the London Palladium had the nation glued to their sets. Now Sunday has once again become the dominant night for TV viewing as broadcasters are urged to find more hits to follow Downton Abbey.
Last night a combination of the death of Lavinia in the series finale of the historical drama and a double eviction from The X Factor pulled in an estimated audience of up to 15 million viewers to ITV1.
Sunday night has traditionally been reserved for Michael Palin's gentle travelogues or "warm bath" drama in the tradition of veterinary saga All Creatures Great And Small and Heartbeat.
But in today's cut-throat battle for ratings, the weekend's last gasp is the new home of "blockbuster" brands, with Downton Abbey facing criticism for substituting dramatic credibility for soap-style pacing and plot twists. The combination of ITV1's popular line-up and the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing results show has seen audiences for Sunday night outstripping those for Friday and Saturday evening viewing. Last week, the Sunday X Factor results show attracted 13.8 million viewers, nearly three million more than the preceding night's live heat. Sunday has become "the new Saturday" with ratings hitting 31.9 million, the largest-ever for a Sunday night, when Strictly and The X Factor reached their climax last December.
Advertisers, facing a new year without Downton and X Factor, are keen to see more Sunday blockbuster shows. Downton, which averaged 11.5 million viewers before last night's episode, will return with a Christmas special. However, the third series will not air until next autumn.
Chris Hayward, head of investment at Zenith Optimedia, a media agency which buys advertising slots, said: "In the current economic climate people are more receptive than ever to high-quality programming that is there purely to entertain. Viewers want to leave the weekend in a happy frame of mind." ITV spent £1m per episode on Downton Abbey, which has huge global sales potential. The BBC, cutting its drama budget under a plan to make savings of 20 per cent, will hit back next year with three new episodes of its own Sunday blockbuster, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. But the BBC was urged to move its slot when it could be competing against ITV's hit Winter celebrity series, Dancing On Ice. Mr Hayward said: "They will schedule Sherlock in a strategic way, but it shouldn't be on at 9pm versus a big ITV show."
The success of Downton has been credited to ITV's decision last year to launch it after Sunday's X Factor. But with 30-second ad slots costing up to £100,000, viewers have complained at the interruptions to episodes. The 67-minute series opener included 23 minutes of advertising breaks and other promotions.
Julian Fellowes, Downton's creator, defended the breaks. He said: "We were left entirely free to make the show we wanted to make because we had the funding of advertising to do it. It is wrong to present advertising as a hideous evil that wrecks the programmes it appears in. It enables and makes them."