Christmas! Bah humbug

Auds drop for BBC, ITV's festive fare

LONDON — Blighty’s terrestrial webs caught a seasonal chill over the holiday as the rival attractions of digital channels and homevideo provided further evidence of audience fragmentation.

A year ago more than 16 million viewers tuned in to watch the most popular show aired on Christmas Day — a special edition of BBC1’s veteran comedy “Only Fools and Horses,” starring one of the U.K.’s most popular TV thesps, David Jason.

Twelve months later, BBC1 still won the Yuletide ratings battle against commercial net ITV1 but the web’s most popular offering, blue-collar London soap “EastEnders,” drew just 12.3 million viewers.

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

This law of diminishing returns, as auds turn instead to nonterrestrial channels or the latest addition to their DVD collection, was evident, too, in ratings for BBC1’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

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.

The results please BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey. “It’s a key public service to provide entertainment for all ages throughout the festive season,” she says. “It’s fantastic that our original comedy and drama … has made BBC1 first choice this Christmas.”

What she did not say was that BBC1 looks set to record its worst annual viewing figures for three years.

The network has been hurt by fragmenting audiences and a less ratings-friendly schedule engineered by the pubcaster’s need to follow its public service remit. This means it’s showing fewer commercial programs in order to get its Royal Charter, its operating document, renewed by the government on favorable terms.

Terrestrial sister station BBC2 fared even worse this holiday.

Its primetime share was half its 2003 figure. The centerpiece of BBC2’s Christmas evening schedule, a profile of the late British screenwriter Dennis Potter on documentary strand “Arena,” managed just 500,000 viewers.

Pre-digital, a program of this caliber could expect three times that figure.

For Potter fans, the rapid extension of viewing choice did have one benefit — digital net BBC4 is mounting a special Potter season, including a rerun of arguably his best work, “The Singing Detective,” over the holiday period.

The spread of multichannel across the U.K. (cable and satellite penetration is pushing 60%) also was bad news for Queen Elizabeth II.

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 between BBC1/BBC2 and ITV1.

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

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

Meanwhile an alternative Christmas Day message delivered by Marge Simpson, another famous matriarch who arguably heads an equally dysfunctional family, netted 6.1 million viewers over four separate showings, courtesy of Channel 4.

The success of this Yuletide edition of “The Simpsons” was particularly galling for the BBC because it used to hold terrestrial rights to the show before it was outbid by Channel 4.