Television has traditionally been a feature of the Christmas holidays for many people, but the days of huge audiences in living rooms across the land may be over. An informitv analysis of Christmas Day viewing in Britain shows a dramatic decline in audiences. The final episode of the period drama Downton Abbey was the most popular programme on Christmas Day, watched by just 6.6 million. As Carson the butler observed: “The world is a different place from the way it was”.
The Queen’s Christmas message was the most watched programme on Christmas Day in the United Kingdom, viewed by 7.2 million. It was broadcast by both the BBC and ITV, although 6.1 million watched it on BBC One.
Scheduled against EastEnders, Downton Abbey claimed the highest audience for a single programme, with just 6.6 million, giving the commercial channel the top spot for the first time in 15 years.
The hour-long EastEnders and Coronation Street specials were watched by 5.7 million and 5.6 million respectively, the lowest ever number for these serials on Christmas Day.
The BBC claimed 8 of the top 10 programmes, including the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special, watched by 6.5 million, and the children’s animation Stickman, viewed by 6.4 million.
The first festive episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special drew 6.4 million, compared to 9.7 million the previous year, when it topped the ratings.
These overnight figures exclude repeats and catch-up viewing, which are collated to produce consolidated ratings.
In 2014 the Christmas Day episodes of EastEnders and Coronation Street were watched by 8.6 and 6.7 million people, including catchup viewing within seven days.
These audiences are nothing like what these programmes once reached.
In 2010 EastEnders was the most popular programme on Christmas Day, attracting a total of 12.61 million viewers, including repeats.
On Christmas Day in 2000 EastEnders was watched by 18.31 million. In 1986, a year after it began, the Christmas Day episode was watched by over half the country, attracting a combined audience of 30.15 million.
The largest single audience for a programme on Christmas Day was 21.4 million for The Mike Yarwood Show in 1977, while Only Fools and Horses also passed 21 million in 1996 and 2001.
2014 was the first year in decades that the highest audience on Christmas Day fell below 10 million. In 2015 the largest live audience was just 7.2 million, split across two channels.
The dismal decline in audiences in recent years is partly a result of more viewing choice, including streaming services, together with other entertainment options, such as games.
It suggests that given alternatives, the nation can no longer be assumed to watch whatever is offered, choosing between a handful of channels and competing programmes.
Notably, none of the top ten programmes on Christmas Day was broadcast live, although watching the Queen at 3pm is clearly still a tradition for many.
The previous Sunday, ITV achieved an audience of 3.72 million for an ambitious broadcast of The Sound of Music Live, reaching a peak of 4.5 million viewers.
Although a relatively modest audience by the standards of traditional television, it was remarkable in bringing together around four million people to watch a televisual version of a live theatrical production, fluidly captured by 17 cameras across three sound stages. The musical performance was by all accounts better received than the version previously attempted by NBC in America.
12.54 million viewers watched the New Year’s Eve Fireworks on BBC One, according to overnight ratings from BARB, slightly more than the previous year, although fewer than the year before.
Television can still bring a nation together to celebrate a live event. The fireworks themselves were spectacular. Interestingly, even they only achieved a 63% share of the television audience at the time, although many millions around the world watched them online.
These days it is relatively rare for a programme to reach more than 10 million viewers. Soaps and the occasional drama series can still pull in that number as can popular talent and celebrity shows. So it is something of a surprise that The Great British Bake Off, an amateur cookery competition, topped the charts with 15.0 million in October. That made it the most popular programme of the year by far, taking the Christmas cake and eating it.