The Big Question: Is multi-channel TV damaging the quality of Christmas programmes?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Well, Christmas is coming, and the TV schedulers are squaring up. Specifically, a row has been prompted by research conducted for the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster, revealing that 44 per cent of all programmes shown between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day are scheduled to be repeats.

Foster's report on this subject is itself a hardy perennial, another Christmas repeat. But the findings, which prompted a wave of negative headlines, followed those of another survey earlier this month by YouGov suggesting that 57 per cent of viewers thought the Christmas TV schedule was "not as good as it used to be", with 24 per cent going so far as to say it is "completely over-rated". Only a meagre nine per cent regarded their annual television feast as "excellent festive entertainment".

What's the extent of TV on offer this Christmas?

It is strange that there is a debate over lack of choice when 86 per cent of British homes are multi-channel. The Freeview platform offers viewers 30 channels, and for those with access to the Sky satellite platform, there are now more than 500 television channels and 100 radio stations. That smorgasbord of viewing includes 27 children's channels, 15 channels dedicated to religion and more than 40 in foreign languages. The challenge of filling all this air time with quality programmes has never been greater.

But how much of this is repeats?

With hundreds of channels, more original TV is being made than ever before. But the Lib-Dem finding of 44 per cent repeats compares to a figure of 35 per cent last year, which is an increase of more than a quarter. Alarmingly, 80 per cent of children's programmes are re-runs, reflecting the crisis in that sector.

The worst offender in terms of repeats is Five, where 60 per cent of the festive schedule has been seen before. This sense of djà vu is not a universal feature of the Christmas schedules the most notable exception being BBC One, which has no repeats in peak time and 84 per cent original programming across the three days.

Why so many repeats?

The bottom line is money. Making original and memorable programming is a very expensive business, and commercial TV is dependent on advertising. In spite of the large television audiences at Christmas, advertisers are reluctant to spend heavily at this time, preferring to run their campaigns earlier, when people are buying their presents, or later, when they are heading out to the sales. So for commercial broadcasters there is less financial incentive to schedule expensive original material.

How important is Christmas TV in the battle for ratings?

On top of the limited interest from advertisers, commercial broadcasters know that the BBC, in the corporation's words, "pulls out all the stops over Christmas". Just as in times of national crisis, viewers tend to turn to BBC One for Christmas family viewing. Last year the channel had a 30.5 per cent audience share on the big day, compared to ITV1's 22.5 per cent. Channel 4 goes so far as to virtually side-step Christmas altogether, its attitude epitomised by its alternative Christmas Day speech, variously delivered in the past by Quentin Crisp, Ali G and a woman in a niqab veil.

What was the high point of Christmas viewing?

The vast Christmas Day audiences of the past are long gone, with so many channels now available and with television moving increasingly online to sites such as YouTube, Joost and Babelgum. It's hard to imagine that more than 30 million tuned in to watch Angie and Den's bust up on EastEnders in 1986 or that more than 24 million watched Only Fools and Horses a decade later. Last year's ratings winner was BBC1's The Vicar of Dibley, with 11.4 million.

Are repeats really so bad?

There is a business case for showing repeats, given that UKTV has built a successful network of channels based largely on the appetite of audiences for proven classic programming. For example, UKTV's newly-branded Dave channel is proving more effective, showing back-to-back repeats of shows like Top Gear, than rival lads' channel Bravo has been developing original formats on such subjects as police chases and football hooliganism. And Christmas, for most, is about tradition, familiarity and comfort.

A survey for Radio Times in 2005 found that the favourite Christmas shows were the likes of Only Fools and Horses, Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies, all available only as re-runs. Most blockbuster movies, including those that formed the centre-pieces of fondly-remembered Christmases past, have been shown before, especially in multi-channel homes where scores of films are shown every day.

So does this add up to worse television?

A higher proportion of repeats cannot be healthy for programme makers but let's not forget that this is an industry that has undergone an annus horribilis. Already struggling to maintain advertising income, which is migrating to the internet, it has seen the dream of a lucrative revenue stream from premium rate phone calls seriously damaged by revelations that audiences have been duped.

Advertising during daytime has been hit by official restrictions on commercials for junk food, further reducing children's programming budgets. The BBC, traumatised by the 2bn funding gap that emerged from its disappointing licence fee settlement, has spent this year attempting to deliver the biggest programme of cuts in its history.

So what's the best of the new shows?

One sure-fire family hit will be Kylie Minogue's appearance as a Titanic waitress in a Christmas Day episode of Dr Who. On the same day, on the same channel, Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles are being re-united for the first new edition of To The Manor Born since 1981. On 27 December, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant will appear in the final show of Extras, also on BBC One.

On BBC2 on Christmas Day, a performance of Romeo and Juliet by the Royal Ballet will be shown at 4.25pm and in the evening is a retrospective of the best moments of Dragons' Den, which is the best kind of repeat. Channel 4 is playing safe with a Christmas Day screening of the film about the young Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries, starting at 10.35pm.

So is Christmas TV a shadow of its former self?

Yes...

* Quite literally, nearly half of all the programmes on offer have been shown before

* Television is an industry in crisis, it's nave to expect the bold programming of the past

* With plenty of diverting content online, the TV set no longer dominates Christmas entertainment

No...

* We will still be watching shows in tens of millions, just not in the same room, and not just on TV sets

* Only a generation ago we were stuck with three channels, now many homes have hundreds to choose from

* What's not to like about being offered classic shows and more of them than ever before?

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