Television viewing over Christmas in Britain fell to a new low in 2016. Audiences have fragmented as viewing options proliferate. The most watched show on Christmas Day attracted the lowest audience for that day in any year since the television audience research organisation BARB began reporting.
On the 25 December 2016, which fell on a Sunday, the largest audience was for the BBC One drama Call the Midwife, with 9.21 million viewers, including seven day catch-up viewing. That was slightly down on 9.30 million the previous year, when the most popular programme was Downton Abbey, viewed by 10.92 million on the commercial ITV channels.
Mrs Brown’s Boys, Strictly Come Dancing, The Great Christmas Bake Off, and Doctor Who were watched by 8.98, 8.94, 8.21 and 7.83 million respectively.
The BBC drama serial EastEnders was watched by 7.83 million, ahead of Coronation Street on ITV, which was viewed by 7.79 million.
In 2010, EastEnders was the most popular programme on Christmas Day, attracting a total of 12.61 million viewers, including repeats. Back in 2000 it was watched by 18.31 million on Christmas Day and in 1986, the Christmas Day episode was watched by over half the country, attracting a combined audience of 30.15 million.
The most popular programme over the holiday period was once again the New Year’s Eve countdown and midnight fireworks, which attracted 11.60 million viewers, according to unconsolidated overnight figures,
Commentators have suggested that viewing figures have been affected by the rise of online streaming. Services like Netflix and Amazon do not report viewing figures, but we should not assume that people are necessarily watching them instead of broadcast television on Christmas Day.
In the week ending Christmas Day, BARB recorded approaching a billion minutes of online viewing across the broadcasters and platforms it measures. Over half of that was through the BBC iPlayer, which accounted for 5.52 billion minutes. It sounds a lot, but it works out at an average of just over half an hour a week for each of 17 million or so unique browsers that use the service.
In comparison, BARB shows that nearly 95% of people in the United Kingdom watched television in the week up to Christmas, watching an average of just over 28 hours of television, which is four hours a day. The BBC channels accounted for over 30% of that, with BBC One viewed for an average of slightly less than six hours over the week.
Almost 85% of television viewing is still at the time of broadcast, with just over 15% time-shifted, a percentage that has been steadily increasing since 2006, according to BARB.
The reality is that the incredible growth in viewing options has fragmented audiences, which no longer have a simple choice between a few channels.
Broadcasters can no longer get away with putting on a movie and expecting people to sit around and watch, although 9.28 million people watched the Stick Man animation last Christmas Day.
Furthermore, television is no longer so central to home entertainment as it once was. The biggest risk to traditional television is not so much online video as the opportunities that new technologies have created to do other things.
The most popular programme in Britain in 2016 was the The Great British Bake Off, with the final show in the cake cooking competition attracting an audience of 14.00 million in October.