Festive telly fun

Christmas - total ratings war, no weapon too lethal or trick too low.

Christmas comes early for television schedulers. Last week, at least three national newspapers published detailed Christmas and New Year schedules. Unless you're Piers Morgan, the editor, it's hard to imagine readers carefully keeping their dog-eared month-old Daily Mirror ready to bring out in front of the television on Christmas Eve, so what purpose is served by this? Mr Morgan would have been better off returning the schedules as the Daily Mirror likes to do with other leaked documents.

Indeed, the tabloids even printed our Christmas plans so early that television schedulers had at least 24 hours to re-work their Christmas pattern before the presses rolled at the Radio Times and TV Times, having already seen the advanced schedules of their rivals.

Or had they? The Mirror schedules on all channels was full of that long- running, ever-popular series, TBA. Then, of course, like other broadcasters, no doubt, we slipped a couple of curve-balls into the early schedules - programmes that were mis-described or even hoaxes. Just a couple, but enough to confuse. The Mirror even printed Channel 4's Tribute to Clint Eastwood twice on separate nights. Even Channel 4 doesn't screen repeats that quickly.

So, at Channel 4 last Thursday we sat down with the Mirror and The Sun and decided what to change. Trouble is, what do you believe? We were never going to let our rivals have advanced notice of where our Father Ted Christmas special or Jo Brand stand-up was going to be placed, so if we told a few whoppers in our advance schedules, so must have other broadcasters. Not knowing what was bluff or double bluff in our rivals' schedules, we made no major changes this year, although we still made two moves just ten minutes before the Radio Times presses started.

For minority channels, our Christmas job is to win a respectable audience share by offering alternatives. The big programmes on the major channels usually wipe the board. The One Foot in the Grave Christmas special will put two Channel 4 feet in the grave, and all of us will be crushed under the feet of the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. However, the majority of British households don't have children, and Channel 4 has to provide unexpected treats at Christmas for a wide range of minority groups - from opera fans to lovers of silent cinema, and from dance devotees to trainspotters.

It's sometimes hard to understand why grown men and women obsessively change their schedules. Perhaps it's good practice for those Christmas games of Scrabble and Cluedo, or more likely it's because Christmas television viewing plays by different rules. The regular template of any channel's schedule is missing. News is at different times, most long-running strands disappear, and holiday viewing habits are very different. So what other channels will run is the schedulers' nightmare - a complete unknown.

Through the year, clues are gathered to try to make sense of the schedule void. Marcus Plantin was seen in the Ivy with Robson and Jerome. Bev Dixon is leaving Brookside; will she go out with a bang? Someone lets slip that Steve Coogan is working on something for the BBC at Christmas.

The only co-operation is the sensible liaison between Channel 4 and BBC2 over Christmas music. This year, we talked together to ensure that Channel 4's Faust and BBC2's La Cenerentola are kept apart. Only once, when a scheduler had obviously been on a BBC assertiveness and aggression course, did this grown-up collaboration stop but normal service has now been resumed.

The other key reason for secrecy at Christmas is money. For years, BBC1 has won the yuletide battle as families gather round Auntie's fireplace. Millions of pounds are spent on the most expensive movies and streams of comedy specials to ensure their best two weeks of the year against ITV continue.

ITV has a major problem. All the revenue is gathered in the run-up to Christmas, so advertising is very limited over Christmas itself. They can spend millions on special programmes and have little to show for it. A former ITV boss told me: "Some years ago, we had two completely different schedules - a dummy for outside purposes, and the real schedule for slipping in at the last minute."

So beware of the arrival of strange brown envelopes. On odd occasions, a rival's schedule is leaked through some strange, labyrinthine route and a document arrives mysteriously. But is it true or false? One former channel controller used to leak a dummy version of his own Christmas schedule deliberately to put his rivals off the scent. A couple of spelling mistakes caught him out.

Channel 4, also reliant on advertising, goes for the Viet Cong move at Christmas - the small guerrilla army hiding in the bushes trying to hit the BBC and ITV with a few surprises. We know we will never win big audiences at Christmas, but let's have some fun and mischief on the way.

For the last few years, we have transmitted an attention-seeking Alternative Queen's Speech by Quentin Crisp or Brigitte Bardot. This year, Rory Bremner will deliver the message as Princess Diana, "Queen of Hearts". As ever, Rory will have some funny and sharp things to say.

We mix this with some high-quality arts programmes, the Welsh National Opera's Faust or Mike Figgis's film on choreographer William Forsythe, family animation - Lenny Henry in a follow-up to The Snowman - Famous Fred and a mixture of movies.

And let's be honest - the Christmas audience seems to have an endless capacity to watch ancient movies. Channel 4's big hit films last year were Doris Day in Move Over Darling and Jason and the Argonauts. Ashley Hill, Channel 4's head of programme planning and formerly at the BBC and BSB, says: "Apart from big comedy specials, it's movies that work at Christmas. Whatever channel I've been on, when you take the final look at the Christmas schedule, the overriding question is `will celluloid do the business?'"

So the broadcasters are giving the public what they want at Christmas, and with a few exceptions on Channel 4 and BBC2, that means bland fare. Could we all be bolder, or are the viewing habits of the British at this time of the year just too conservative? Why waste a brilliant and serious documentary or original contemporary drama at Christmas if the viewers want undemanding fare?

What is absolutely certain is that whatever the viewers think, television critics, having overdosed on Christmas television as well as Christmas pudding, will ritually slaughter our schedules. The words "turkey" and "old chestnuts" spew out of the word processor. The articles may have been written in advance, but the critics are probably right - all our schedules will be full of old chestnuts. The viewers like them.

I will be at home this Christmas as a viewer. I will look forward on Channel 4 to Father Ted, Klinik, our spoof Dutch soap opera, Eddie Izzard's Cows, Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, and, of course, Rory Bremner's Christmas message. I will watch The Snowman for about the 10th time and probably still cry when the snowman melts, and I shall certainly peep into Steve Coogan and Only Fools and Horses on the BBC.

My real Christmas nightmare is the dreaded crisis phone call. I am the Channel 4 executive on duty again this year. If the Queen Mother is ill, if there's another major news story, I will be in the office whatever is on television. But at least I have four sets there, so I can watch old movies on all four channels at once.

The writer is director of programmes, Channel 4 Television

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