That long-missing TV buzz is back thanks to two bona fide Christmas blockbusters
George Clooney’s In the Midnight Sky and Jamie Foxx’s turn in Soul will have us curling up together on the couch again
Cool viewing: Netflix releases In the Midnight Sky, George Clooney’s post-apocalyptic thriller set in the Arctic, on December 25th
One slightly melancholy aspect of Christmas in the 21st century has been the increasingly frayed pretence that good, old-fashioned television still forms a crucial part of the seasonal experience. The idea that the nation is hurrying to get its collective washing-up done in time so it can flop down together on the couch for Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special, or that a screening of The Greatest Showman is something to get excited about has been looking threadbare for a long time now.
This is not a new observation, and it’s usually accompanied by wistful recollections of Christmas telly’s golden age, complete with obligatory mention of Morecambe and Wise. But this year the TV buzz is actually back on December 25th, with the worldwide release of two bona fide blockbusters that have bypassed cinemas altogether and gone straight into your home.
On Christmas Day, Netflix releases The Midnight Sky, George Clooney’s post-apocalyptic thriller set in the Arctic (a seasonably snowy touch there). Meanwhile Soul, the latest offering from Pixar starring Jamie Foxx as a jazz musician seeking a way back from the afterlife, premieres on Disney+. This week, Netflix upped the ante further by shifting the preteen action-adventure We Could Be Heroes forward from a new year release to Christmas Day as well. It remains to be seen, of course, whether any of these live up to their advance billing (recent Netflix offerings, from the incoherent family musical Jingle Jangle to the self-indulgent period drama Mank, have underwhelmed), but the first two are smack bang in the commercial mainstream, while also being tipped for multiple Oscar nominations. In ye olden days, months or even years would have passed before they made it to your TV screen.
The focus up until now has mostly been on what all this means for the bedraggled theatrical exhibition sector, which has already recorded the worst box-office year in its history and is now coming to terms with the news that Warner Brothers will no longer observe the traditional window between cinema and online release, putting all its titles for next year out simultaneously on its HBO Max platform. That decision has kicked off a war of words between Warners and advocates of the cinema-going experience such as director Christopher Nolan. But the direction of travel is clear: the future of cinema-going as a mass communal cultural experience (still the most popular one, lest we forget) is yet again the subject of conjecture.
We’ll return to cinema’s intimations of mortality on another occasion. But what of good, old-fashioned linear TV? The streaming services are annoyingly opaque about their own audience numbers, but it’s a fair bet that (checks listings) Call the Midwife Christmas Special’s ratings for the BBC will be dented by the combined star wattage of Clooney and Foxx. The 2018 version of A Star is Born is a decent enough offering on RTÉ1 on Christmas night, but it doesn’t quite cut it in comparison.
Legacy broadcasters such as RTÉ no longer dine at the top table when it comes to home entertainment
In truth, many broadcasters tacitly gave up on Christmas Day a long time ago. Social and technological changes – the splintering of home entertainment via multiple devices, the rise of gaming, social media and other distractions – did the damage before most people had heard of Netflix. Channels dependent on advertising preloaded their mid-December schedules to maximise revenues from retailers. What used to be the biggest day in the schedule became an afterthought, populated by a couple of precooked “specials” and two-year-old movies.
Not everyone has Netflix or Disney+ or Amazon Prime, of course, and the proliferation of streaming services poses real questions about how many subscriptions the average household is willing or able to bear. Public service broadcasters will point to their obligation to reach the parts of the population that other services can’t or won’t because of connectivity or cost. Interestingly, RTÉ has programmed the Irish animation Angela’s Christmas Wish, which premiered on Netflix last week, in a prime 5.15pm slot on Christmas Day.
All of which is well and good, but it doesn’t get away from the fact that legacy broadcasters such as RTÉ no longer dine at the top table when it comes to home entertainment. As traditional audiences leach away, and newer generations fail to pick up the telly-viewing habit in the first place (and yes, the same problems are faced by newspapers), it’s noticeable how RTÉ devotes more and more of its time and energy to telling us how important it is and what a special place it holds in our hearts. The irony is that it was during this long period of decline that it happened upon the most successful Christmas format in its own history. But then The Late Late Toy Show happens in November.