When UK Christmas TV meant big movie premieres

With Pixar’s Finding Dory this year’s Christmas afternoon film on BBC One, Mark looks at the tradition of festive movie scheduling...

My super-secret ideal job would be creating a TV schedule for Christmas Day. Even though it makes very little sense to be interested in what’s on TV when in an age of catch-up and streaming services, I’m still hopelessly nostalgic enough to get the Christmas edition of the Radio Times and have a look through everything that’s going to be on over the festive period. 

If that’s not for you, fair enough – those newly unwrapped 4K Blu-rays aren’t gonna watch themselves on the 25th, are they? But if you don’t mind wallowing in nostalgia with us for a bit, we’ve been thinking about the long-held tradition of the Christmas Day movie premiere. 

Over the last 50 years or so, BBC One and ITV1 have often made room for a film brand-new to terrestrial TV on their schedules for 25th December, whether it slots in right after the Queen’s message at 3.00 p.m. or it’s the jewel of their primetime schedule. Some of us have got cherished memories of watching certain films for the very first time on Christmas Day in this fashion. 

Alongside the development of home media, multi-channel television, and streaming services, the manner of scheduling these premieres has changed too. Arguably, as their popularity has risen and fell, we’ve gone in a circle that starts and returns to broadcasters putting on more original seasonal programming rather than showing films on the big day. 

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And so, going decade by decade, we’ve taken a look back at some of the trends in scheduling over the years. When did ITV start showing Bond films? Which 1980s comedy unexpectedly attracted more than 21 million viewers? And where do the schedules go from here? 

The 1970s – Mr Bond, we’ve been expecting you…

 

As you’ll know, there used to be very few ways of seeing movies unless they were showing at a cinema near you. This made movie premieres on terrestrial TV a major draw and the Christmas schedules gradually included more of them in the afternoon and during primetime as the 1970s went on.

Not every distributor was licensing films for TV, mind. For instance, Disney’s infamous vault policy (which has only recently come to an end with the advent of Disney+) kept most of their animated back catalogue off the air at this point, but the BBC would usually schedule an episode of Disney Time on the 25th. First broadcast in 1961, the compilation show featured celebrity hosts introducing clips and songs from various classics that were otherwise only available through occasional repertory screenings and re-releases, which kept Disney’s coffers full.

Elsewhere, United Artists were all too happy to capitalise on the success of their James Bond films, making six-figure deals on TV rights with broadcasters around the world. And in the UK, ITV became the broadcast home of 007.

Given the cost of licensing them, (reportedly upwards of £850,000 for the first six films, and even more for later titles) the Bond films were justly treated as big events when they did appear, enabling ITV to recoup their investment from advertisers who wanted to reach the massive audiences they attracted.

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Nowadays, marathons of the 24 Bond films can be stripped across half the year, but at this point, ITV was restricted to no more than two screenings per year, to protect the still-profitable big-screen re-releases. As a result, schedulers usually reserved them for Christmas, Easter, and bank holidays, and so Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With The Golden Gun premiered on successive Christmas Days later in the decade, with repeats of earlier entries like Goldfinger nestling into the post-Queen slot dubbed as “The James Bond Film” in alternate years.

As the Bond films were a major coup for ITV, the BBC would include more premieres in their Christmas schedules through the rest of the decade, most notably with the first TV broadcast of The Sound Of Music, which trounced Diamonds Are Forever in the ratings in 1978.

By the end of the decade, although seasonal specials and variety shows were still being produced, Christmas Day movie premieres had become a fixture of BBC One and ITV schedules, with 1979 bringing primetime airings of The Sting and The Three Musketeers, respectively.

The 1980s – the big numbers

The Christmas Day film grew in prominence on both of the major channels throughout the 1980s. At the outset of the decade, with evident demand for more family-friendly film premieres, both the BBC and ITV dipped into the catalogue of Disney features available for broadcast deals in the early 1980s.

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The BBC licensed several live-action titles from Disney’s archive, including 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Treasure Island, and (the big one) Mary Poppins, and showed them on successive Christmas afternoons. Meanwhile, ITV got hold of Bedknobs & Broomsticks and the only two animated films that the studio has traditionally exempted from their moratorium on animated classics – Dumbo and Alice In Wonderland.

ITV also went after the three Star Wars movies, premiering them in order in 1982, 1988, and 1989. Of the three, The Empire Strikes Back was the only one to go out on 25th December and though It seems mad that the famous downer ending originally went out on Christmas Day, that’s how it played out. Return Of The Jedi didn’t arrive until Boxing Day the following year either.

Although more and more films were commercially available on VHS at this point, (the first Bond films came to video in the UK in 1982) the accessibility of home video recorders allowed UK fans to record and keep films, with the long-play setting proving to be one of the decisive factors in the format’s victory over Betamax. On the other hand, with the proliferation of Christmassy adverts and idents around this time of year, anyone who recorded a Bond or a Star Wars off ITV at Christmas would get to relive the festive period throughout their various repeat viewings in the New Year.

But in this early era of home media, film premieres were still a major telly event and by 1989, the BBC had followed ITV’s lead and started showing more contemporary films that drew enormous viewing figures. Although Channel 4 had started broadcasting in 1982, there were still only four channels available to most viewers, so it was still possible for big movies to bring in more than 20 million viewers.

The key example would be when Crocodile Dundee drew 21.77 million viewers at primetime on Christmas Day 1988. This makes it the most-watched Christmas movie premiere in UK TV history, (and the third most-watched overall, behind January debuts for Live And Let Die and Jaws on ITV) however unusual that may seem.

Knowing this and seeing the comparatively low numbers for Jed Mercurio dramas and sporting events that are now considered to be huge, it’s tempting to say “That’s not a high viewing figure…” – well, you get where we’re going with that.

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The 1990s – blockbuster evenings

For many of our readers, your memories of big Christmas movie premieres probably come from the early 1990s, when BBC One ran with big movie premieres year after year, both in the afternoon slot and in primetime. Landmark premieres included E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1990, with further Steven Spielberg films like Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Hook, and Jurassic Park making their terrestrial debut on later Christmas Days.

The following year, Batman arrived in primetime, just over two years after Tim Burton’s artful comic-book blockbuster had taken the global box office by storm. This was a big deal for those who had missed it in the cinema, especially if they were too young at the time it first came out, and in subsequent years, the Beeb would include further premieres in the heart of their primetime schedule, including The Mask, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and Babe.

Meanwhile, the commercial channels moved away from premieres on the day. ITV had run out of Star Wars films for the time being and the Bond films were, ironically enough, on hiatus due to legal disputes over international broadcast rights. During the early 1990s, the channel’s Christmas premieres were more along the lines of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Field Of Dreams, which went out back-to-back in 1993.

Channel 4 and Five (which launched in 1997) didn’t run too many film premieres at this point, airing archive films that weren’t typically available on VHS or (by the end of the decade) DVD instead. But then for commercial channels, the big money for adverts lies in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, not in the sofa sale season that officially begins on the 24th, which is why these channels put fewer big draws on the big day.

On another note, ITV briefly adopted the Disney Time format from the Beeb towards the end of the decade, enlisting the likes of Phillip Schofield and Suggs from Madness to present clips from classic and contemporary animated films in a half-hour package. Most importantly, they also premiered Disney’s The Muppet Christmas Carol at 3.10 p.m. on Christmas Day 1997, and across various channels, the film has been a rightful fixture of festive telly ever since.

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The 2000s – the Potters have landed

By Christmas Day 2000, film premieres dominated BBC One’s afternoon and evening schedule, with 1997’s The Borrowers followed by the Best Picture from the same year, Titanic. It’s wild that James Cameron’s Oscar-winning romantic epic was considered festive viewing, but then this is the channel that gives us “This is going to be the best Christmas Walford’s ever had” in annual parcels of misery.

To show how much things have changed, writer Steven Moffat revealed at the time of Sherlock’s period-set New Year’s 2016 special, The Abominable Bride, that the corporation had rejected a proper Christmas special of their most popular drama, stating that the schedule was too tight to make room for a 90-minute special on the big day. We don’t know about unsinkable, but it’s unthinkable that BBC One would give three hours of its Christmas schedule over to one film nowadays.

Later in the decade, Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (that’s another 150 minutes right there) premiered on BBC One in 2004, but all the subsequent instalments went to ITV1, usually at different times of the year before getting repeat runs at Christmas. With the Bond films having gone up to a higher, less daytime-friendly age level in the Pierce Brosnan era, the Potter movies came in at about the right time for ITV’s schedulers.

But for the Beeb, Philosopher’s Stone seemed to mark the end of its blockbuster run. Although their film premieres almost always charted high in the top 10 highest-rated programmes for the day, contemporary films were increasingly longer and more geared towards PG-13/12-certificate audiences than the big draws of yesteryear. Plus, Sky Movies subscribers were getting newer films much sooner and DVDs were coming out even quicker than that.

From then on, Christmas afternoon was usually dedicated to animated family films, starting with 2005’s post-Queen slot being filled by a premiere double bill of Shrek and Toy Story 2. At the time of peak “nothing but repeats and old films” articles in certain tabloids, schedulers shifted to the now-more familiar model of putting an animated movie on after the monarch and then showing original programming for the rest of the day.

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That was also the year the first Doctor Who Christmas special landed. While we’ve previously written about how these specials became a modern equivalent to the blockbuster premiere, you need only look at how David Tennant’s two-part swan song dominated the festive season in 2009, with the first part going out in the primetime Christmas Day slot that once belonged to Titanic.

Although they’re longer than the usual 45-minute episodes, Russell T. Davies’ mini-blockbusters proved considerably more compact and family-friendly than the 150-minute PG-13/12A films that came to dominate the cinematic landscape after the turn of the century.

The 2010s – look to the future…

From the mid-2000s up until a couple of years ago, the BBC One afternoon premiere alternated between DreamWorks’ and Pixar’s animated output. Scheduling has since caught up with the comparatively fallow period that came during Comcast’s acquisition of DWA, meaning that newer Disney films, including live-action remakes Cinderella and The Jungle Book, have filled any gaps.

Elsewhere, ITV1 has had some ratings success programming the Daniel Craig Bond films Skyfall and Spectre on Christmas Eve, but will normally lean on repeats of at least one or two of the Harry Potter, Despicable Me, or Back To The Future films on the day proper. As it stands, ITV1’s 2019 schedule includes exactly one film premiere – Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2 will air on 28th December, furthering the inexplicable division of broadcast rights for Marvel Studios movies on UK TV.

Perhaps as a reaction to dwindling interest, the big-to-small screen window is gradually closing – it took six years for Toy Story 2 to reach BBC One in 2005, which is twice the time it took for Toy Story 3 to turn up in 2013. However, last year marked something of a watershed in Sky’s aggressive shortening of the pay-TV window when Sky 1 aired The Greatest Showman, which was exactly 364 days old at that point, at 6.00 p.m. on Christmas Day, and it’s hard to see how the traditional big five could match that.

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Even though discs and streaming services now give us a near-infinite choice of films to watch on-demand, schedulers still put premieres in pride of place on Christmas Day. After all, the Beeb’s offering still usually places in the top 10 for the day, even if the overall audience figures for all programmes are about a quarter of what they were back in the 1980s.

This year, BBC One gives us two 2016 Disney premieres – Moana and Finding Dory – sandwiching the Queen’s speech. Disney+ isn’t available in the UK yet, but if it takes off, this might well be the last Christmas where everyone doesn’t immediately have access to titles from the House of Mouse’s catalogue without needing it on disc or download.

We don’t know if this will change how the Beeb’s schedulers (who have come in for criticism in recent years for programming the same annual Scooby-Doo corridor schedule of Strictly, Call The Midwife, EastEnders, and Mrs Brown’s Boys) plan their Christmas line-ups going through the 2020s. Still, if the traditional Christmas Day film premiere is to disappear from schedules in years to come, it’s had some of us circling listings for a fairly solid half-century.

We’re indebted to the UK Christmas TV site for our research on this feature, so give them a click if you fancy looking back through past years’ listings.

What are your memories of the movies you saw on terrestrial TV around Christmas? Share your thoughts in the comments or just let us know what DVDs and Blu-rays you’re hoping to get on the 25th