ITV team prays for a Christmas miracle

It is part of the traditional British Christmas, along with the family row and cold turkey sandwiches – BBC’s victory over ITV in the battle for viewers.

But this Christmas, a new team at the ITV Network Centre is under pressure to squeeze the biggest possible audiences out of the last few weeks of the year. Chief executive Richard Eyre and his team need some big audiences this month to bring the channel’s annual peaktime share as close as possible to Eyre’s publicly stated target of 38 per cent.

ITV’s share in the third quarter of this year was below this magic threshold, meaning that every week counts in the final quarter if the channel is to come close to its goal.

There is also an element of pride at stake. This is the first Christmas when all ITV’s programming has been commissioned, scheduled and marketed by the new regime.

For as long as most people in TV can remember, ITV has been trounced by the BBC over the festive season. As there is nothing to advertise over Christmas except summer holiday packages or new year sales, there is no point in ITV wasting its best programmes of the year to pull in big audiences when the demand for airtime is so low, and therefore so cheap.

David Liddiment, ITV director of programmes, says: “You have to strike a balance between the reality of revenue availability against presenting a competitive schedule compared with the other channels and giving our viewers a decent Christmas.”

BBC1 is the traditional channel of choice throughout Christmas, partly perhaps because of its place as the national broadcaster and partly because its record in classic Christmas fare, such as family comedies, is streets ahead of ITV. According to Liddiment, the BBC’s 49m Christmas programming budget is also about two-and-a-half times more than ITV spends.

Every year ends on a sour note for ITV, which has to put a brave face on all the negative publicity in the newspapers, when headlines such as “Del Boy makes a plonker of ITV” abound. In 1995, only one of the top ten Christmas Day programmes was on ITV. In 1996 and again last year, eight of BBC1 shows made the top ten.

But does ITV have a hope of making a dent in the BBC’s dominance this year? Certainly the competition is more intense than ever. Last week, after both sides put out phony schedules in November, the definitive listings were unveiled.

This year, ITV hopes to hold its own during the festive season with an emphasis on British drama rather than the traditional big movies. Liddiment says: “Movies are harder to come by than they used to be. We want to keep them for the times of year when there is the most demand for ratings.”

Besides three Bond films on Boxing Day, Monday December 28 and New Year’s Day, and other blockbusters such as Pretty Woman on Saturday, December 19 and Home Alone on December 29, homegrown dramas take centre stage. Adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Frenchman’s Creek, starring Tara Fitzgerald, and Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, starring Juliet Stevenson, will appear on the two Sunday nights either side of Christmas. A two-part Catherine Cookson, two special 90-minute episodes of Cadfael and a Ruth Rendell mystery will also be screened.

On Christmas Day, however, ITV’s schedule mainly comprises Christmas specials of its hit shows, rather than one-off dramas. The thinking behind this is that once people are switched on to gripping and dramatic episodes of their favourite programmes, they will stay with the channel.

ITV’s hour-long special of Emmerdale at 6pm is followed by Coronation Street at 7pm, then You’ve Been Framed At Christmas at 8pm. The latter two are scheduled against the BBC1 film Babe. At 8.30pm, ITV has an hour-long Who Wants To Be A Christmas Millionaire, which is competing with BBC1’s EastEnders. ITV’s hour-long docu-soap about Christmases From Hell at 9.30pm will draw in viewers who do not want to watch the BBC News, although audiences may flick over after 20-minutes for the first of a special trilogy of Men Behaving Badly at 9.50pm – the strongest offering from the BBC this Christmas.

Liddiment says: “Christmas Day is driven by specials of some of our biggest shows. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire has been the big hit of the year. You’ve Been Framed has been drawing in audiences of 14 million. We want to get the momentum going on Christmas night from 6pm with Emmerdale. We want to try to get some impetus into our schedule.”

David Cuff, broadcast director at Initiative Media, says: “ITV has a better quality schedule. Despite the lack of revenue in the market at that time of year, ITV is doing something for the consumer and for its share.

“Christmas is an important time to sell ITV to the consumer. ITV’s programmes are its best ad.”

ITV has already received two big Christmas presents this year – a significant cut in the extra taxes it pays to the Government and the decision to scrap News at Ten. It would give the Network Centre a final fillip if audience shares hold up slightly better against the BBC this Christmas. But as Liddiment himself says: “Don’t expect any miracles.”v

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