End of an era in U.K.

BBC1 soap tops diminishing Xmas day aud

LONDON — BBC1 again won the Christmas Day battle for the most auds in Blighty.

Its blue-collar London soap “EastEnders” drew 12.3 million viewers, with BBC1 comedy “The Vicar of Dibley” No. 2 with 11.8 million. Commercial rival ITV1’s northern soap “Coronation Street” came in third with 11.3 million, according to unofficial figures.

But the numbers are well down on last year, when 16 million tuned into a special edition of BBC1 veteran comedy “Only Fools and Horses.”

Sitting down as a family to watch “EastEnders” was once as much a part of the British Christmas Day ritual as digging in to roast turkey and cranberry sauce. On Dec. 25, 1986, when the two terrestrials webs dominated, more than 30 million watched the BBC soap.

This law of diminishing returns, as auds turned to nonterrestrial channels or the latest addition to their DVD collection, was evident, too, in ratings for the big Christmas Day movie, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” aired by BBC1.

Some 7.9 million viewers tuned in vs. 11 million in 2002 for “The Mummy” and 7.4 million last year for BBC1’s “Meet the Parents.”

The web’s showing was more impressive than main rival ITV1’s, always cool about Christmas because advertisers have little money to spend following the big fall campaigns.

Despite that, BBC1 looks set to record its worst annual viewing figures for three years.

The network has been hit by fragmenting audiences and a less-ratings-friendly schedule. The latter is due to the pubcaster’s need to follow its public service remit by showing less commercial programs in order to gets its royal charter renewed by the government on favorable terms.

The spread of multichannel options across the U.K. (cable and satellite penetration is pushing 60%) was also bad news for no lesser Brit than the Queen.

This year her traditional Christmas Day broadcast, in which she appealed for greater tolerance and understanding in multiracial Britain, mustered a mere 8.3 million divided among BBC1 and 2 and ITV1.

This figure is believed to be the lowest for the Queen’s Christmas message since TV sets became fixtures in U.K. homes a half-century ago.

In 1991, the Queen’s Christmas afternoon speech was watched by more than 20 million.

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