BBC trumps ITV in Christmas television battle

THE BBC claimed victory over ITV in the battle for Christmas Day viewers, as EastEnders attracted the biggest festive audience for the third year in a row.

Albert Square’s favourites trounced Downton Abbey, after weeks of speculation that the ITV drama would claim top spot with a two-hour special.

The BBC soap’s traditional yuletime menu of shock revelations and tragedy saw it easily fend off the challenge from the festive fisticuffs and marriage proposal dramas served up on ITV.

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Although EastEnders’ average audience of 9.9 million was down by 1.5m compared with last year, ITV’s flagship drama, which was broadcast at the same time, could draw only 8.1m and trailed in fourth place, sandwiched between special festive instalments of Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing.

However ITV bosses put on a brave face, insisting the gap between the two audiences was the smallest for a decade.

BBC1 drew 31.1 per cent of the TV audience between 7pm and 10.30pm, while ITV1 attracted 29.7 per cent when viewers of catch-up channel ITV1+1 are included, although there is no BBC equivalent.

The only ITV show to make it into the top ten two years ago was Coronation Street, with 7.9m viewers on average. It came second this year.

Radio Times editor Ben Preston said the reason for EastEnders’ smaller audience this year was due to viewers having divided loyalties, as both BBC1 and ITV1 provided audiences with a range of options. And he used a footballing analogy to make his point

He said: “The figures are quite surprising. But I think it’s divided loyalties and it’s like both the BBC and ITV are trying to man-mark their opponents’ playmaker and they’ve both knocked each other out of the game.

“But it is also a case of the enduring power of soaps, I think. Never underestimate the power of the soaps, especially when they are on the back foot.”

EastEnders versus Downton was the key battleground this year, as the two ratings winners went head to head at 9pm. But even Bates’s murder conviction and Matthew’s accepted marriage proposal to Lady Mary was not enough for the ITV show to seal top slot.

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EastEnders last lost out in the festive ratings battle to Wallace & Gromit, when it was screened by BBC1 in 2008, drawing 14.4m viewers.

ITV’s ratings best since 2004 but still not enough

The BBC’s entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba said: “While the BBC has again won the overnight ratings battle, this is ITV’s strongest showing for years. In 2010, only two of its programmes made it into the Christmas Day top ten, the year before only one, and a decline in Christmas Day terrestrial viewing appears to be continuing. This is the first year no programme managed an average viewership of 10 million or more.”

A spokesman for ITV said: “We’re delighted that so many viewers enjoyed our Christmas Day schedule, including events from Downton Abbey, Coronation Street and Emmerdale.

“It’s a terrific achievement for ITV1 to have recorded its best peak-time Christmas performance since 2004.”

However, BBC1 controller Danny Cohen said: “I’m delighted viewers found so much to enjoy on the channel on this special day. From Doctor Who to Gruffalo’s Child, EastEnders to Strictly, Michael McIntyre and Ab Fab, we wanted to provide something for everyone.”