Why is Christmas TV such a big deal in the UK?

by | Dec 9, 2022 | TV

It may seem strange, but since 1957 Christmas TV has been almost as big a part of festive celebrations as carols, presents or even a turkey dinner. In 2020, the average Brit spent 24 hours, 45 minutes watching TV in Christmas week alone. From the Royal Christmas message to watching celebrities on game shows, it’s the best time of year to turn on the telly, crack open the Quality Street and relax with the people you love.

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Big Audiences for Christmas TV

Christmas is typically a time for huge TV audiences, with many viewing records being set during the season. The record for the largest single audience for a television programme is 21.4 million, set on Christmas Day 1977 by the Mike Yarwood show. That’s based on ITV’s measurements – the BBC claim that they hold that title for the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special that was airing at the same time based on their own readings. The biggest Christmas Day TV audience ever was the 21.8 million people who tuned into the premiere of Crocodile Dundee in 1989.


The King’s Christmas Speech

Of all the UK Christmas TV traditions, the Royal Christmas message might be the most well-known. More than 27% of families sat down to watch the Queen’s Speech last year, and this year we will be able to tune in to the first King’s Christmas Speech in 70 years – and the first ever televised King’s speech. The first ever televised Christmas speech was in 1957, before this Elizabeth II, her father George VI and grandfather George V broadcast speeches by radio.

There has not been a formal announcement of when Charles III will give his speech this year, but it’s expected he’ll continue with the traditional broadcast spot. That means you would be able to watch his address at 3 pm on Christmas Day. The broadcast is usually made on either BBC One or ITV One, although Sky produced and aired the address in 2011.

Did you know? ‘You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch’ was originally performed by Thurl Ravenscroft, better known as the voice of Tony the Tiger


The Christmas Ad arms race

For many viewers at Christmas time, seasonal ad campaigns are as much a part of the TV landscape as the programmes themselves. Perhaps the most famous is the John Lewis and Partners Christmas campaign, which has been running since 2007. As with previous years, the ad was the subject of pre-release speculation and made headlines when it was finally revealed. The ad even has its own section of the John Lewis website.

These promotional mini-movies usually feature a heart-string-pulling storyline, overlaid with a modern acoustic cover of popular songs. In recent years other retailers have tried to copy the formula, particularly Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Boots.



Films on TV at Christmas 

Sitting around the television to watch a film together is a happy Christmas memory for millions, even in the streaming era where we have thousands of movies at our fingertips. Christmas remains a popular time to show new movies on TV, whether that’s with a Sky Cinema premier or a streaming release to Netflix. In 2022, highlights include the Christmas Carol retelling ‘Spirited’ starring Will Ferrel and Ryan Reynolds (Apple TV+), ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’ (Disney +) and the comedy ‘This is Christmas’ (Sky Cinema).

Did you know? Since 1978, ITV has broadcast a James Bond film on Christmas Day 12 times.


The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special sees the intergalactic reprobates hanging out with Kevin Bacon (Image: Disney+, 2022)


Christmas Specials

Another tradition when it comes to the UK is the Christmas special, (usually) one-off episodes designed to be shown during the festive season. Christmas specials might have extended run times and will usually see familiar characters celebrating with their loved ones. Soap operas have earned a reputation over the years for saving explosive revelations and climactic tension for the captive Christmas audience. Other popular dramas and comedies including Call the Midwife, Bad Education, Doc Martin and Death in Paradise will all be giving us a glimpse into seasonal goings-on for their cast of characters in 2022. 

Reality programs, quizzes and competitive shows also love to jump on the seasonal bandwagon, often challenging teams of celebrities to compete to win funds for charity. From winter-specific contests like Channel 4’s ‘The Greatest Snowman’ to a special episode of ‘Strictly Come Dancing and the ‘Great Festive Bake-Off’, they’ll be plenty of chances to watch famous faces have a go at something they clearly expected to be easier.



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