It's Christmas Day. You've eaten too much. You're slumped in front of the box. Are you watching? Advertisers don't think so. Meg Carter reports
Each year the Christmas story is the same: a ratings bonanza for BBC 1, which regularly wins the festive battle for viewers. Good news for John Birt? Not really. Forget cosy notions of families huddled around the Queen's Speech and savouring the festive cliffhanger in Albert Square. While television viewing will officially hit its 1995 peak on 25 December, the reality is that attention levels will be at an all-time low.

Says who? The advertising agency J Walter Thompson, which this week publishes Project Santa, a study of 20 years of Christmas media consumption. It points out that we are increasingly bored with broadcasters' seasonal offerings, and that although television sets throughout the country will be turned on, we won't actually be watching.

One reason is the predictability of what's on offer. "There's still the same old mix," says James Walker, JWT media research director. Back in 1974, the top 10 programmes during Christmas week were mostly variety shows and half-hour comedies: BBC 1 held the top three slots with Mastermind Final (21.4 million), Likely Lads Special (20.4 million) and Dad's Army (19.8 million). A decade later, a similar pattern, although variety has been usurped by sitcoms and film premieres. Raiders of the Lost Ark (19.4 million); Porridge (19.4 million) and Airplane (18.1 million) were 1984's top performers.

Little had changed last Christmas. The top 10 included "special" editions of One Foot in the Grave, Birds of a Feather and Keeping Up Appearances. Coronation Street (17.3 million), Casualty (15.3 million) and National Lottery Live (15.1 million) were the top three for Christmas 1994.

Against a backdrop of falling audiences for both BBC 1 and ITV, total peaktime television viewing at 8.45pm on Christmas Day remains stable: 27.2 million last Christmas, compared with 26.9 million the year before. But, as BARB viewing data shows, average viewing on Christmas Day is falling down from five hours 37 minutes in 1993 to five hours and 22 minutes last year as new channels take their toll. "The audience is fragmenting," Walker says.

Changing attitudes to Christmas shaped by - and simultaneously shaping our attitudes to - the media are explored by research conducted by JWT in London and Sheffield into the attitudes of women: "the creators of the family Christmas". Younger women without children view Christmas as "fun, but not 'special'," says Daniele Cardillo, JWT media research manager. "They watch TV because they are too tired - or hung over - to do anything else. When they do so, they are passive: they've seen the shows and terrestrial movie 'premieres' before."

People aged 25 to 35 with children are more likely to play an active part. They are less likely to watch television until early evening, although the set is likely to be on - in the background - most of the day. Neither group takes much interest in the Queen's Speech: "It's the only time of the day the TV is definitely switched off," says Cardillo. This mirrors the overall slump in those tuning in for the Queen: down from 24.2 million in 1986 to 14.6 million last year.

Cardillo says Christmas television has lost its gloss. "There is a feeling that TV used to be better, that once it was 'a special part of the day'. Now, Christmas TV means repeats; look out for ITV's rerun of last year's seasonal Taggart and Heartbeat on Christmas Day. And hands up who has already seen Sister Act 2 and Indecent Proposal - the highlights on ITV and BBC 1 this Christmas night.

More traditionalist viewers interviewed don't mind. Television is not their priority. As one says: "I just enjoy seeing everyone together."Even family squabbles about what to watch aren't what they used to be, findings show. "There's no negative veto because people can't be bothered," Walker says. Arguments have been rendered pointless by the growth of video and the increasing number of sets per home. And cable and satellite, videos, computers and video games are all competing for time, producing the televisual equivalent of chronic indigestion.

All of this is bad news for advertisers. "Christmas Day's TV is the least actively viewed of the year. People watch passively, with little involvement, which has a massive impact on the out-take for advertising," Walker says. While the ratings may be high, there is no guarantee that anyone is watching. For although BARB viewing data records when a set is on it does not detect if a 'viewer' is asleep, drunk or has left the room.

Besides, while many people remember seeing Christmas Day ads for holidays, the January sales, DIY and carpet stores, few see the point: by Christmas Day their money is spent. So should advertisers bother? "Unless the airtime's especially cheap," says Walker, "the answer's probably no."

Small wonder, then, that ITV throws in the towel before it has begun. Each year it is criticised for failing to beat BBC 1 on Christmas Day with a lacklustre selection of seasonal "specials" and yesterday's fare while BBC 1 seems to win with little effort. It wins all right - but it's a hollow victory.