Christmas TV — what happened to it?

What’s on the box at Christmas, then and now.

There’s something about the process of getting older that adds a certain nostalgic filter to almost everything, especially when you have children. Christmas TV was never fantastic admittedly (3–2–1 Pantomime anyone?) but wasn’t there something more to it than the culmination of big, explosive soap plots that have led to Christmas TV ratings in 2016 at an all-time low. When such nostalgia strikes it’s sometimes a good idea to remove memories from the situation and dig into the actual data. So we set out to compare the schedules of our childhood (so only 3 channels of BBC 1, BBC2 and ITV) with the modern schedules to find out the truth behind Christmas TV, and how it has it changed.

3–2–1 Pantomine (1980) — Image from GB Gameshows

We grew up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and so chose 1978 to 1985 as our comparison years to the modern TV of 2010 to 2017. After collecting the data from (no small feat in itself, see below for methodology) we parsed each programme name and start time into a single readable dataset. In choosing to focus on just Christmas Day, we felt it provided a comparative day between years that wouldn’t change based on the day of the week. The final part of the process was to standardise the data and give each programme into a fixed type in order to make comparison between years easy; we tagged them with Comedy, Drama, Film, etc. Looking back we perhaps underestimated what an effort it would entail, it took many hours work over multiple days in order to successfully code around 2500 programmes into categories.

This coding process was an interesting one, and raised many emotions, from the sickening, labelling “Jim’ll Fix It” as Children’s, to the annoying “Mrs Brown Boys” which fell in no better bracket than Comedy.

Christmas Day 1983 — ITV — history judges Christmas scheduling very badly in some cases

Once the coding process was over we then compared the two eras visually. We also calculated how many programs of each type fell into each era — the “then vs now” percentage on each subheading below shows these.

Films (44% then vs 56% now)

One change that stood out immediately is that films on Christmas Day have shifted quite significantly between the two periods, as the gif below shows as it fades between the years.

Each row in the visualisation is an hour from 6am to 12pm on Christmas Day — Films are picked out in Grey— animated fade compares time periods

Films in our childhood were clearly scheduled on all three channels around three main time slots: midday, 3 or 4 (directly after the Queen’s Speech) or around 9pm. Modern TV has shifted the Christmas Day film to become a morning or afternoon watch (the post Queen’s speech slot remaining the only constant), with a consequential shift towards children’s animations or children’s blockbusters. Has the big 9pm blockbuster been abandoned by schedulers in favour of soaps and dramas?

Soaps and Drama (20% then vs 80% now)

Certainly there seems a big move to dramas and in particular soaps dominating the two main channel’s schedules in prime time on Christmas Day.

Animated fade compares time periods

Typically these Christmas Day soaps feature big storylines guaranteed to draw in an audience, but typically feature dark themes such as tragedy and murder. Jumping to conclusions about what that means maybe should be avoided though as the 70s and 80s schedule features films such as Airport 1975 and Death on the Nile on BBC; with ITV opting for more lighter films such as Revenge of the Pink Panther and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps looking at this lighter side of Christmas will reveal a trend?

Comedy (32% then vs 68% now)

1983 to 1985 comedy featured heavily in the BBC 1 evening schedule; All Creatures Great and Small, Hi-Di-Hi, Only Fools and Horses, and The Two Ronnies ran back to back in 1985. The experiment though seems to have failed as comedy of late has taken a late night slot on the two main channels with BBC 2 (the self-proclaimed “Home of Comedy”) taking up the lion’s share of the genre.

Purple shows comedy shows at Christmas — animated fade compares time periods

It is interesting to note though that the vast majority of Christmas comedy in the modern era features repeats of The Good Life, To the Manor Born, The Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army, Blackadder, and The Morecambe and Wise Show. Only Upstart Crow, Miranda and the aforementioned Mrs Brown’s Boys provide the modern offerings of sit-com “comedy”. This throwback to the 70’s and 80’s is also seen with the appearance of Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing in the modern schedules.

It is also of interest from the schedules (not shown above) that religious programming (55% vs 45%), featuring only an hour on BBC 1 and ITV in the schedules of the past, has been completely dropped by ITV (we recorded Christmas Carols as Music).


Has our look at the schedules shed any light on the question? Is modern Christmas TV significantly different to our childhood? It’s hard for nostalgia not to pull you in that direction. The 24/7 TV of now is a far cry from the BBC 2 of old which popped on our screens at around 9am for a quick Playschool before turning off until 2pm. Let’s not forget too the simple joy of game shows, with actual members of the public rather than celebrities, that seem to remain a thing of the 70s and 80s. The 1970s even had live shows! Take a bow, Noel Edmonds Live Breakfast show. It wasn’t always great TV, but it was honest and wholesome — isn’t that what Christmas is about? and does it matter any more when everyone is watching Netflix on their brand new tablet?

We’d love to hear your comments on Christmas TV — you can explore the data interactively if you’re on desktop and let us know your thoughts below.

If you’re on a desktop PC explore the Christmas Schedules Interactively by clicking here


Extracting the data from wasn’t straightforward. Other providers were available but all suffered the same problems of unstructured and inconsistent coding in the HTML. It was impossible to organise any structure in the scraping of the data. Therefore there was a lot of manual coding to supplement the scraping process. The main process was done in Alteryx but fell over in many areas due to inconsistencies in the HTML. The result was around 12 hours of manual checking and tagging.

Visualisation then took many forms as we shared ideas on what to share in the main article.

These visualisations and conversations then formed into the visualisations we presented in the main article. The GIFs were produced using ScreenToGiF after exporting the images from Tableau to Powerpoint and enabling transitions for the fade effect.

You can find the data for the visualisations as well as the raw TV schedules here .