Last year, BBC1 delivered its best competitive performance against ITV for seven years, according to the official figures of the British Audience Research Bureau. It narrowed ITV's lead to 2.7 per cent, from 5.1 per cent in 1995 and 7.1 per cent in 1994.
The corporation also increased its overall audience share for the fourth year running, to 44.1 per cent from 43.3 per cent. Of that, BBC1's share rose by 0.3 per cent and BBC2 by 0.4 per cent.
BBC2 also claimed to have increased its lead over Channel 4, pushing its audience share from 11.2 per cent to 11.6 per cent, compared to 10.8 per cent for its rival (down 0.2 per cent from 1995).
Michael Jackson, the director of television and the controller of BBC1, said: "In the year of our 60th anniversary, viewers couldn't have given us a better birthday present."
At 25 hours and nine minutes a week, the average viewing of all channels declined by just one minute last year compared to 1995. The BBC's share was 11 hours and four minutes (up on last year by 10 minutes). ITV's share was eight hours and 50 minutes (down 32 minutes) while Channel 4 attracted two hours 42 minutes. Viewing of cable and satellite increased by 24 minutes to two hours 32 minutes.
Mr Jackson pointed to the success of BBC programmes in 1996 for the corporation's success, including Our Friends in the North, The House, Ballykissangel, Hamish Macbeth and The Crow Road.
But Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcast, although applauding the "vote of confidence" from the audience, sounded a note of warning.
"We must be realistic about the tough challenges facing us in 1997," he said. "The competition will intensify with the arrival of Channel 5 and other new cable and satellite services."
ITV said yesterday that it could not vouch for the accuracy of the BBC's figures because it quantified its statistics differently.
However, a spokeswoman conceded: "The BBC are certainly doing better, but they still have a long way to go before they reach ITV's dominant 40 per cent share of the peak-time audience, which is more than 6 per cent ahead of BBC1 according to our figures."
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Viewing figures for top 10 programmes on all channels last year
1. Only Fools and Horses - 24.35 million, BBC1, 29 December
2. EastEnders - 22.7 million, BBC1, 25 & 29 December (a)
3. Coronation Street - 21.3 million, ITV, 28 February & 1 March (a)
4. Casualty -18.05 million, BBC1, 24 February
5. A Touch of Frost - 17.57 million, ITV, 4 February
6. One Foot in the Grave - 17.47 million, BBC1, 26 December
7. Euro 96: England v Germany - 17.46 million, BBC1, 26 June (b)
8. You've Been Framed - 17.34 million, ITV, 27 October
9. Heartbeat - 16.89 million, ITV, 27 October
10. The National Lottery Live - 16.62 million, BBC1, 6 January
(a) Denotes an aggregate audience.
(b) ITV's coverage of this match was seen by a further
6.3 million viewers.Reuse content