ITV watches BBC go on Christmas spending spree

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The Independent Online
EVERY CHRISTMAS it is the same old story: Baby in a manger, the collective ingestion of sprouts and Quality Street, and ITV taking the sort of thrashing for which people normally have to pay.

The BBC unveiled its Christmas schedule yesterday and, long before the first remote control is taken up in the battle for viewer ratings, the corporation looks certain to prevail again.

Not that there is anything startlingly different in this year's BBC schedule - it is the usual mix of film premieres, drama and Christmas specials of just about everything except a party political broadcast. It is just that the BBC always wins at Christmas.

The enduring seasonal superiority is partly an issue of programmes, but mainly an issue of priorities.

By the time the second half of December swings round, most consumers are pretty well spent up and therefore of limited interest to the advertisers that bankroll ITV.

"The BBC spends around two and a half times as much as us on programmes at Christmas," says an ITV spokeswoman.

"We're a commercial broadcaster. We have advertisers to think about as well as viewers. They would prefer us to invest in our top programmes at other times of the year.

"It's not that we stop trying at Christmas, it's just that we have different priorities to the BBC."

Instead of even attempting to match the BBC genre-for- genre across the schedule, ITV has this year decided to spend less on films and to concentrate more on home-grown drama. Hence its fairly meagre cinematic offerings.

Whereas the BBC is presenting the terrestrial premieres of Babe, Apollo 13 and Speed, as well as the Oscar- nominated Mrs Brown and an extravagant film adaptation of Twelfth Night, ITV is restricting itself to the original, but hardly box-office Nightmare Before Christmas, a remake of Black Beauty, Richie Rich and Disney's version of The Three Musketeers.

The money has been diverted into a feature-length adaptation of Cider With Rosie, which stars Juliet Stevenson, and Lost for Words, a potentially moving dramatisation of the onset of old age, featuring Thora Hird and Pete Postlethwaite.

The extra effort the BBC channels put into the season is reflected at pretty well every level, not just in the obvious Christmas specials of shows such as Men Behaving Badly, Jonathan Creek and Goodness Gracious Me, but also in its factual and music output. BBC2 is screening a two- part Arena on the life of Brian Epstein, a programme that could be eclipsed, but only in its novelty value, by a 50-minute documentary covering Agas and the people who own them.

THE BATTLE FOR THE COUCH POTATOES' VOTE

FILM

Babe

Terrestrial premieres of Babe, Apollo 13 ("We have a problem Houston") and Nixon, as well as Oscar- nominated Mrs Brown, Speed and the seminal It's a Wonderful Life. Worth paying the licence fee just for the latter.

Apart from the dark, nearly brilliant Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton, it's meagre pickings with Richie Rich, The Three Musketeers, Black Beauty and, er, that's it.

WINNER

A big fat turkey with all the trimmings on BBC. Assorted puddings on ITV.

DRAMA

EastEnders

A film version of Twelfth Night, starring Helena Bonham-Carter and Nigel Hawthorne, seasonal slabs of Casualty and Jonathan Creek, as well as a sumptuous adaptation of Henry James's The American.

Instead of spending on films, ITV has invested in seasonal drama - Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie starring Juliet Stevenson and bankers such as Heartbeat, Cadfael and a trio of Ruth Rendall mysteries.

The BBC shades it with the conclusion of the Grant and Tiffany saga in EastEnders.

COMEDY

Men Behaving Badly

A Men Behaving Badly trilogy follows Gary as he contemplates the unthinkable - an empty can of lager. Oh yes, and fatherhood. Not forgetting French and Saunders, Vic and Bob, and Harry Enfield.

A television network without comedy is a bit like a shepherd who can't whistle. A version of Jack and the Beanstalk, starring Paul Merton, Neil Morrissey etc is probably the highlight.

"Fertilise me like never before," Dorothy orders Gary. How can you refuse?

ENTERTAINMENT

Changing Rooms

Seasonal outings for Ready, Steady, Cook, Before They Were Famous and Whatever You Want with Gaby Roslin. And, of course, Carol Smilie's oddly compelling Changing Rooms.

Cilla Black dusts off that hat for another Blind Date Wedding, while the hero of the Freddie Starr Show does the same with his joke collection. Chris Tarrant offers wads of cash in a Who Wants to be a Millionaire? special.

A very loose and

fluid category this. It has to be a dead heat.

FACTUAL

Agas

Given the alleged turn of events in the Christmas story, "factual" programmes are a curious way to mark the festival. Still, there's a two part biopic of Brian Epstein and a tribute to the Queen Mother.

Eclectic in the extreme - from a moving return trip to Northern Ireland with Christmas in Omagh and to Murray and Martin's Christmas F1 Special.

If you watch only one programme, make it Agas and Their Owners on BBC2.

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