Richard Woolfe on Broadcasting

So Christmas telly isn't as good as it used to be? Try these festive delights
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The Independent Online

The double issue of the Radio Times has dropped through the letterbox, the cat keeps knocking the Christmas tree over, and the 15lb turkey is crowding out the freezer. That can mean only one thing we are rapidly approaching the season of goodwill to all.

And it is at this time of year that many eyes turn to the Christmas TV schedules, expecting to find a feast of festive delights for all the family.

Therefore it is also round about this time that the debate is raised in homes and offices up and down the country Christmas TV is not what it used to be.

Rubbish, say I. In an age of competing leisure activities, PlayStations, the internet, Blu-Ray and HD DVD players and so on, the competition for attention and eyeballs has never been so fierce.

But Christmas is different, and remains so in spite of distractions and the endless new access-points. As extended families gather, normal service is resumed. The TV is the hub and the festive schedules provide the backdrop to the day. Who has not spent a lazy day digesting the turkey, chomping through a seemingly inexhaustible supply of chocolates and sipping a cheeky sherry while enjoying a soap send-off, movie premiere or sitcom special.

As an entertainment veteran and avid TV viewer, I happen to believe that television is as integral to Christmas as presents, turkey, mistletoe and mulled wine. It is the responsibility of all broadcasters and producers to continue to make Christmas a special time for all the family to tune into the box.

And a Christmas schedule is not just about sticking a Christmas tree in the corner of the studio, tacking some holly on to your ident or dusting down some old favourites.

Well, what can we look forward to this Christmas? Does the old clich ring true? Are broadcasters getting lazy with their Christmas formats? In short, is Christmas TV really special any more?

It is very easy to don rose-tinted spectacles and look back at Christmases of yesteryear, such as the 30 million viewers who tuned in to watch Den serve Angie divorce papers. That will never be repeated in audience terms. Yes, Morecambe and Wise was a highlight of the year rather than just of Christmas viewing, but again those ratings were in another time, and we should resist the temptation to be dewy-eyed about them.

And there are delights in store this year. I am particularly excited about To the Manor Born on BBC1; there's something reassuring about the annual fake snow in Albert Square and the tinsel in Corrie's Kabin; the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special promises the return of Ramps (cricketer Mark Ramprakash); there's the revival of Noel's Christmas Presents on Sky One; and if the final Extras is half as good as The Office Christmas specials, it will be one of the talking points of the season. Not to mention Her Majesty's Christmas message in a glorious high-definition picture.

Nevertheless, it may well be that there are fewer must-see TV shows in the terrestrial schedules this year. If so, there are some understandable reasons for this shift. Although not yet well and truly over, the best days of the ding-dong Christmas Day battle between BBC1 and ITV1 are behind us not least because some bright spark in ITV Towers worked out that it's not the smartest move to bring out your biggest guns on the one day of the year when advertisers can barely muster interest in buying 30-second spots. ITV's stomach for the fight has never been quite the same since, which is usually good news for BBC1's duty publicist on Boxing Day when they claim their annual, if somewhat hollow, victory, even if it's not great for the bloated viewers at home.

And Christmas TV is no longer the private domain of the terrestrial channels indeed, their share of viewing over Christmas week has been steadily eroded thanks to the increasing range of channels available to viewers, with offerings such as blockbuster film premieres and live Boxing Day football. Such attractions are now a staple part of the Christmas television schedules.

For Sky, Christmas may not be about the ratings battle on Christmas Day, but don't let anyone tell you that Christmas is not important in the pay-TV world. This is a time when more people choose to take up multichannel than at any other time of the year due to the range of programming on offer.

For broadcasters, the importance of television at Christmas creates a fantastic opportunity to connect with viewers. This is the one time when viewers really want their favourite channels to offer the very best programming. I am a firm believer that creating talked-about event TV is an essential tool in delivering exciting and fresh programming to audiences. And producing special programming for Christmas is no different the same principles apply.

Granted, no channel controller is going to launch a raft of key new shows at this time. This is even more true for a multichannel network such as Sky One than it is for a terrestrial. But the success of Hogfather for us last year showed that viewers love true event-TV at Christmas, and that they will seek it out like a pack of dads hunting down the last Nintendo Wii in Hamleys on Christmas Eve.

We have the most creative people working in the industry in this country and what better time than Christmas to remind viewers that television is a powerful medium to deliver the very best entertainment?

Stories of extraordinary people

As I write this, reports of the final assault on Musa Qala by British and Afghan forces have been playing across the rolling news channels. It is a timely reminder that while we are about to tuck into our turkey, many people will experience a very different Christmas.

Working in the entertainment business, it is all too easy to forget that there are several thousand young British men and women whose daily existence is one of facing great danger in foreign lands. These risks were brought home forcefully to the Sky One team this year when Ross Kemp, left, travelled to Afghanistan to film with the Royal Anglian Regiment. Sending Ross to the front line was not an easy decision and, after anxious weeks, there was a palpable sense of relief when he and the production team returned safely home.

They came back with some extraordinary stories of the daily lives of men and women whose job it is to fight on our behalf. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of military intervention, there is no doubt in my mind that it was right to commission the series. These are powerful stories that deserve telling, and there is no better way to do it than through the medium of television.

Richard Woolfe is director of programmes, Sky One, Two and Three