Broadcasters release box sets to tackle slump in festive viewing figures

Digital services such as iPlayer are packed with reruns as research shows Christmas Day watching down by a quarter since 2012

British broadcasters that have seen festive audiences slump in recent years as viewers have turned in droves to the US streaming giants Netflix and Amazon are planning to fight back this Christmas with the help of their own archives.

Families have been increasingly giving up on the traditional custom of crowding round the TV on Christmas Day and during the festive break, owing to the rise of on-demand, catch-up and an explosion of choice.

As recently as 2008, Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death drew more than 16 million viewers, but viewing of BBC1 shows on Christmas Day has fallen by almost a quarter since 2012, according to research from the media agency Blue 449.

But this year the gloves are off as broadcasters take a leaf out of Netflix’s playbook and release bumper box sets and reruns of their most popular TV shows to combat the drastic fall in festive viewing figures.

The BBC is making its biggest-ever push to beef up its festive content by stacking the iPlayer service with more than 40 box sets – from Peaky Blinders and the teen drama Thirteen to Gavin & Stacey. It also features classics such as the 1986 EastEnders Christmas special when Den handed Angie divorce papers –an episode watched by a record 30.6 million on Christmas Day and for its repeat a few days later.

The BBC, which has historically ruled the Christmas Day TV ratings, has been seeking to bounce back from hitting a primetime viewing low last year when it recorded the smallest Christmas audience since the current form of TV ratings began in 1981.

The most-watched show of the day was a Call the Midwife episode set in South Africa. Dame Pippa Harris, the co-founder of the show’s maker Neal Street Productions, said: “Over the last five years overnight ratings figures [at Christmas] have dropped off. We’ve seen this ourselves with Call the Midwife which regularly gets 5-6 million viewers on Christmas Day but would normally get 8-9 million on a ‘regular’ night.

“I do think Christmas is slightly different, though. People now have so many other pulls on their time. More than ever it is about saving up your Christmas TV treats.”

Harris pointed out, though, that the 2016 festive special of Call the Midwife ended up attracting the show’s highest-ever audience – 10.4 million – when all viewing over the festive period was aggregated.

This year’s Call the Midwife’s Christmas Day special.
This year’s Call the Midwife’s Christmas Day special. Photograph: Sophie Mutevelian/BBC/Neal Street Productions/Sophie Mutevelian

“It is so easy to record and time-shift shows to watch right across the festive period,” she said. “In a way, Netflix and other streaming services are responsible for the festive viewing patterns that have emerged. Netflix has in a sense instilled the idea you can watch what you want, when you want. You can choose your own schedule and timings – the box set mentality.”

Netflix added 222 new programmes and films to its catalogue in November and a further 125 in December, according Blue 449, whose chief executive, Simon Davis, said: “Netflix is once again gearing up for a festive season of binge watching. We see on-demand viewing spike in December, driven by people ‘snacking’ on content over the Christmas period. The public aren’t turning off their TVs; they just have more choice.”

However, the deep-pocketed US streaming firm is facing a renewed challenge from traditional broadcasters this year.

Channel 4 will air two Great British Bake Off festive specials, while Miranda Hart will front a Christmas show, marking the broadcaster’s first major effort at taking a major slice of festive TV viewers.

Richard Davidson-Houston, head of Channel 4’s digital TV service All4, says that with three such “festive bullseyes” in the schedule, he has been focusing on a Netflix-style large-scale loading of box sets for viewers.

All4 now has 120 box sets including The Inbetweeners, Catastrophe, the Isis drama The State, the school drama Ackley Bridge and foreign-language fare under the Walter Presents banner.

“The popularity of services like Netflix is you realise you are sitting on a treasure trove,” he said. “All of these shows did well when they first launched on TV but there is a huge [on-demand] audience that hasn’t yet found those titles. It is about changing viewer behaviour, and we are making much more of a virtue of it.”

Davidson-Houston said that while catch-up TV was still growing fast – for example, Bake Off audiences rose by up to 50% over the week after each episode aired – Channel 4 had found that archive, older shows now accounted for more than half of on-demand viewing on All4. “On-demand is effectively replacing that DVD moment at Christmas now,” he said.

The growing power of the new wave of TV services, led by Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video, is underlined by a growth milestone they are forecast to hit next year.

By the end of 2018, subscription video-on-demand services will have signed up almost 17m customers, the same number as have pay-TV packages with Sky, BT, Virgin and TalkTalk in the UK, according to Ampere Analysis.

For now, nearly all viewers add a service such as Netflix to their existing TV habits, and traditional broadcasters are not ready to let the US service become the Grinch who stole Christmas TV just yet.

Kate Harwood of Euston Films, which is releasing the drama Hard Sun in one hit on the BBC and iPlayer in the new year, said that viewing habits had changed but Christmas remained a focal point of the TV calendar.

“There is still a cultural rush towards Christmas. Netflix hasn’t killed it,” she said. “But there is a lot more spread betting now where it is no longer the case everyone has to gather round the TV and watch the same thing. There is always event TV on Christmas Day – the first female Doctor Who, a Call the Midwife special – what is fun is delivering a bit of a treat. Christmas has certainly not been cancelled.”


Mark Sweney

The GuardianTramp

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