On 29 December 1996, the final episode of the Only Fools and Horses Christmas trilogy was watched by 24.3 million viewers on BBC1.
John Sullivan’s comedy starring David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst still holds the UK record for a sitcom; nearly half the country was glued to the episode “Time On Our Hands”, where the Trotters finally become millionaires.
On Christmas Day 2016, Mrs Brown’s Boys, the Marmite comedy starring Brendan O’Carroll as the mouthy Dublin matriarch, earned a consolidated audience of 8.9 million viewers when it was shown at 10.30pm. Not a bad showing, and the fourth most watched programme across the festive period.
But not in the same league as the boys from Peckham.
The comparison is a little unfair: television and television ratings have, as we know, transformed over the past 20 years.
In fact Christmas TV viewing is still in rude health on the main channels according to executives, with large audiences still drawn to set piece programmes at one of the few times of the year when the whole family watch TV together.
This Christmas Day, BBC1 and ITV took 43 per cent of the total available audience, with the highest rated programme of the day being BBC1’s Call the Midwife with a consolidated audience of 9.2 million, followed by Mrs Brown’s Boys at 8.98 million and the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special at 8.94 million.
BBC1 had 8 out of the top 10 most-watched programmes – but that isn’t new. The Corporation traditionally dominates Christmas when ITV holds back its shows for the period after the main festivities.
That isn’t to say ITV had a bad Christmas, but they were always going to struggle to match the highlight of 2015 when Downtown Abbey was the most watched programme of Christmas Day, pulling in a whopping 10.9m million viewers according to the consolidated figures.
For Christmas Day 2016, ITV had a 18.7 per cent all-time share of viewing (up from 16.2 per cent in 2015) representing its highest all-time audience share on Christmas Day since 2013.
Coronation Street was the top soap of Christmas, reaching a final audience of 8.1m.
Sky too had its best performing Christmas Day ever, with the average overnight ratings across the day up 55 per cent compared to 2015. The channel’s original Christmas Day drama The Last Dragonslayer attracted a consolidated audience of 1.4m, while new Sky 1 drama Delicious achieved the channel’s highest overnight audience of 2016 with 676,000.
These figures do not come close to replicating the highs of Only Fools and Horses, or when 30.1 million viewers tuned in to witness Den handing Angie her divorce papers on EastEnders in 1986.
Those days are long gone. But in the last ten years, Christmas Day viewing has remained surprisingly steady even with the arrival of more channels and on demand services including Netflix, Amazon and BBC iPlayer.
According to Barb figures, TV viewing across all the UK linear channels has risen steadily over the past decade; Christmas Day 2006 saw 38.9m people watching TV, with 45.2m in 2011 and remaining steady at 45.2m in 2016.
And contrary to some considered thought, the number of people aged 16 to 34 has also remained strong in the internet age, with 8.2m tuning in in 2006, 10.2m in 2011 and 9.7m in 2016 – meaning more young people watched TV this Christmas than a decade before, despite the advent of streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon, YouTube and myriad digital distractions.
The average TV viewer watched 242.9 minutes of linear TV between 24th and 30th December, compared with 279 minutes in 2011 and 256.6 minutes in the same period in 2006.
And the figures for other years since 2006 show that young people have consistently engaged with TV over Christmas, both on Christmas Day:
And over the whole festive period:
Christmas, for UK broadcasters it seems, remains a time where families still gather on the couch for the festive season.
The only blip, according to many of the industry insiders I have spoken to, is a certain sense of darkness and gloom around the programming this year.
BBC1’s Christmas Day output, predictably, largely consisted of seasonal specials of big-hitting shows like Doctor Who and Call the Midwife.
Its Boxing Day drama was a very dark (though widely praised) Agatha Christie adaptation The Witness for the Prosecution. The BBC’s main animation, Revolting Rhymes, was also on the dark side. According to insiders, BBC1’s schedulers decided that it was not “sufficiently feel-good” to show on Christmas Day itself, so it aired on Boxing Day and 27 December.
Channel 4’s biggest success, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, was quite a sombre affair, even if it did very well with 6.7m viewers. But C4’s job is to provide an alternative to the mainstream and the channel was happy with the performance of its shows, such as the Alternative Christmas Message and Alan Carr’s 12 Stars of Christmas.
ITV’s main drama, an episode of crime drama Maigret shown on Christmas Day, was also fairly gloomy.
Another problem industry insiders suggest is the absence of a really popular family comedy at the heart of the BBC’s Christmas Day schedule. Something like – you guessed it – Only Fools and Horses.
According to one senior TV executive (not working at the BBC), the Corporation needs to fill a “big wide gaping hole at the heart of the Christmas schedule – and that is a strong and popular family comedy”.
“The BBC really doesn’t have a quality family comedy that the whole family can sit and watch at Christmas,” adds another senior TV producer.
Fools and Horses also did well on Gold, where episodes were shown across Christmas Day, pulling in audiences of 112,000 for the first programme at 7am, rising to 271,000 (9am), 346,000 (1pm), 266,000 (4pm), 361,000 (5pm) and 316,000 for the 6pm episode. Not bad at all for repeats on a channel down the listings grid.
They may not make them like they used to, but the British public’s appetite for TV on Christmas Day shows no sign of slowing down soon. Lovely jubbly.
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years. After a two year stint on local newspapers in the mid 1990s, he spent more than 5 years as the broadcast reporter at the Stage newspaper. Following that he enjoyed staff reporting positions at the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times breaking stories and writing features before settling as a full time freelance writing for an array of newspapers and magazines - but mainly for the Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.