Festive TV schedules haunted by Ghost of Christmas Past
MEDIA & MARKETING: Some things only make sense at Christmas time. Mince pies. Nutmeg candles. HMV. If the Ghost of Christmas Future was to knock on our doors, thin as an iPad, white as icing, telling us that the concept of communally watched scheduled television had become a strictly seasonal exercise in nostalgia, like mulled wine or midnight Mass, would we be surprised? Or would we shrug, say the future is here, and unpause the box set?
Christmas telly – what’s on, what’s watched and what isn’t – reveals much about the state of the TV industry in 2012.
Old analogue heavyweights BBC and ITV serve up their most-watched dramas – for ITV Downton Abbey, for BBC Call the Midwife and Doctor Who – as Christmas Day centrepieces. The stubborn vogue for food porn finds a natural festive outlet during Advent, with RTÉ promoting three cookery shows this year – Kevin Dundon’s Christmas Made Easy (ambitiously promising “tasty sprouts”), Kitchen Hero Christmas Special (apple strudel and Zelten) and Rachel Allen’s Christmas Cake Diaries (spiced pear and ginger cheesecake). Mrs Brown’s Boys has not one but two half-hour specials – in 2011, its December 25th outing was the most-watched Christmas programme in Ireland.
These are the parts of the schedules that directly reflect viewers’ year-long tastes, not just the part of our brains we want to stimulate/satiate/anaesthetise while in the sequined grip of Christmas.
Elsewhere the listings are laced with a love of television’s past, as if commissioners and schedulers sat in a room, got sloppy on eggnog and reminisced about the good old days before Sky Plus, Netflix and Dave – the time when people not remotely close to the target audience for The School Around the Corner could still do a mean karaoke job on the theme tune.
Broadcasters with corporate memories that go back to the 1970s have made valiant efforts in recent years to make one-off, all-singing-all-dancing Christmas programmes that hark back to the ratings-tastic Morecambe and Wise specials of that era. It’s hard not to see this as a form of wishful thinking – a longing for the days when viewers had few options and a Hollywood movie on RTÉ One could be classed as event television.
And yet audiences, too, seem happy to drop in on the Ghost of Christmas Past with a tin of biscuits and a willingness to be entertained. Chat shows, much maligned as a format, are the Curly Wurly of the television selection box: indispensable. The Graham Norton Show, at the top of its game in 2012, thrives at Christmas – even though you can bet the turkey farm that its tinselled-up editions are pre-recorded weeks in advance.
The Tubridy-era Late Late Toy Show, which last Friday scooped up the highest Irish television ratings of the year with 1.3 million viewers, capitalises more than ever on the desire of even child-free adults to travel back to that safe and comforting time when their biggest nemesis in life was a precocious Billie Barry kid with ringlets and high self-esteem.
And then there’s Strictly Come Dancing, playing its cross-audience appeal cards exactly right. For the oldies, here is your host Bruce Forsyth. For the teenagers, boyband singer JB Gill. For the non-Strictly audience corralled into watching like a reluctant Jim Royle, there’s inspired booking Fabrice Muamba, the footballer whose heart stopped during an FA Cup match in March.
The Royle Family sofa model of television viewing – group-heckling the single set in the corner of the living room – is sometimes said to be on the way out, like bread sauce or Facebook. Portable devices and the growth in single-person households have conspired to destroy this cheap bonding tradition, it’s claimed. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Sure, only 45.8 per cent of Irish television viewing takes place in company on weekdays, TAM Ireland data shows. But on weekends, this rises to 50.4 per cent, while in the 9pm-11.30pm time slot, 53.6 per cent of viewing is a shared experience.
For the television industry, Christmas is like one big, improbably long weekend evening, which funnily enough is what it feels like for the rest of us. The stardust, sherry-soaking and schmaltz are all extra.
If we do weary of goodwill to all men, there are saccharine-free treasures lurking in the schedules too. The last person to fall asleep in the house will have the option of Scandinavian brutality on RTÉ via The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Or how about a dip into 3e’s showing of Dylan Moran Live: What It Is, in which the stand-up “ponders the joys and disappointments of human existence with the sensibility and intense perception of a man teetering on the edge”? It certainly sounds Christmassy to me.