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Wednesday, December 24, 1997 Published at 09:37 GMT

Special Report

The great TV ratings war

Christmas is a time when most people sit back and relax - very often in front of the television. But tv executives are amongst the few who cannot afford to take things too easy.

For them the battle is at its hottest in the war of the ratings.

Some of the big guns the broadcasters hope will pull in the viewers this year include the special Christmas episodes of Yorkshire Television's Emmerdale, Granada's Coronation Street and the BBC's Eastenders, Casualty and Men Behaving Badly.

Last year the BBC beat all comers with the screening of the final episode of the hit comedy series Only Fools and Horses on December 29. Viewing figures reached a record 22.1 million people, not counting those who recorded the programme. This was four million more people than those who watched the semi-final of Euro '96 between England and Germany.

Overall the BBC captured 53% of the Christmas Day audience in 1996, compared to ITV's 26%. These figures were almost identical to those in 1995, where the two highest rating programmes at Christmas were episodes of Eastenders.

Immediately after the end of Only Fools and Horses in 1996, viewers caused a 1,600 megawatt power surge as they switched on their kettles for cups of tea.

The biggest recorded power surge ever was 2,800 megawatts after England's 1990 World Cup penalty shoot-out against Germany.

Christmas crackers

Jason Deans, Deputy News Editor of Broadcast, the trade newspaper for the television and radio industry, said: "Christmas is the time when the BBC historically pulls out all the stops - but advertisers aren't that bothered about Christmas ratings because no one is going out and buying anything, so ITV tends to pull its punches."

"The bankers this year will be the Christmas Day episodes of Eastenders and Coronation Street which which may get up to 20 million, but at least over 15 million," he said.

Mr Deans also said ones to watch would be the big family film premieres such as Forest Gump, The Mask and The Flintstones.

"Although it is difficult to say, it's unlikely that anything will reach the same level of Only Fools and Horses last year ... its been around for so long and its so well loved ... the whole thing just clicks," he said.

Pass the chocolates

[ image: Men Behaving Badly stars, Leslie Ash and Neil Morrissey, as Debs and Tony]
Men Behaving Badly stars, Leslie Ash and Neil Morrissey, as Debs and Tony
The favourite to attract the largest number of viewers on Christmas Day this year is the BBC's One Foot in the Grave Christmas special, with odds of 4/7 with William Hill. This year the indomitable Victor Meldrew is planning a holiday in the west country.

Also in the running this year to to take the top spot is the London based soap opera, Eastenders. The festive episodes were filmed at the soap's studios in Elstree back in mid-November and at 9/4 it is second favourite.

East end goings-on include a something nasty happening to Roy, Cindy dropping in on her ex, Ian, on Christmas Day, and a Boxing Day knees up in the Queen Vic.

The ratings on a normal week for Eastenders peak at around 17 million per episode but is currently being beaten to the weekly top spot by ITV's Coronation Street and Heartbeat.

The Manchester soap, Coronation Street, is 7/2 third favourite to pull in most punters at the Rovers this Christmas.

Emmerdale, the Yorkshire soap about farming folk is a 20/1 long shot for its hour length episode planned for Christmas Day.

Another BBC frontrunner for December 25 is Men Behaving Badly at 14-1 which normally attracts just over 12 million viewers. The bumper episode has Gary attempting to cook Christmas dinner and Tony buying an embarrassing amount of presents for Deborah.

Another BBC Christmas cracker is the Casualty Christmas special on December 27. It features a multiple motorway pile-up staged by one of the stunt coordinators from the new Bond film. The episode has a propane gas tanker exploding as fire and ambulance crews battle to rescue those trapped in their cars.

Anyone fancy a cup of tea?

National Grid spokeswoman, Diane Owen said that getting ready for the big power surges, or "TV pick-up" after a popular programme, can often be down to "intuition" as well as keeping a close eye on the Christmas TV Schedules.

"The sort of things we focus on include the Queen's speech, although historically that does not give us much ... as well as evening soaps, Christmas specials and family films."

Ms Owen said the crucial time for power stations was when a family film finished at around dusk.

"When this happens people all over the country can switch on their lights and make a cup of tea at exactly the same moment," she said.

The "pick-up" after a regular episode of Eastenders or Coronation Street can be about 6-700 megawatts, which represents around a quarter of a million kettles. Last year the biggest surge was equivalent to well over a million kettles being switched on.

The National Grid prepare for the extra power needed by asking coal or gas fired power stations to reduce their output before an expected surge, so they are ready to increase it when needed. The country's electricity supply also relies on a specially built hydro-electric power station, Di Norwig in north Wales. It can produce electricity much more quickly than traditional power stations and helps to ensure that the nation's fairy lights continue to twinkle.

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