ITV unveils vital Christmas schedule

ITV has unveiled its Christmas programming, which it hopes will build on the performance of its autumn schedule and put it in a strong position for the negotiation round.

After a dismal summer, ITV had a stronger November with its peaktime audience share rising to 31 per cent compared with an average of just 26 per cent for the BBC.

Among ITV's forthcoming Christmas highlights are an adaptation of Tom Brown's School Days starring Stephen Fry, and Geraldine McEwan as the spinster sleuth Miss Marple in 4.50 From Paddington. The broadcaster will be relying on these drama specials, as well as proven formats such as Midsomer Murders and Emmerdale, to maintain its position and convince broadcast directors not to cut their 2005 ad commitments.

ITV has also planned Christmas special formats for Parkinson, the Frank Skinner Show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Stars In Their Eyes as it prepares to go head-to-head with the BBC. Traditionally, the BBC wins the Christmas ratings battle but this year, with agencies closely monitoring ITV's performance, a strong showing is vital.

The big hit of the autumn schedule has been I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!. Audiences show little sign of fatigue, although the show is now in its fourth series. It has so far delivered an average audience of 8.1 million and a 35 per cent share.

The tactic of stripping I'm a Celeb ... throughout the schedule plus increasing the frequency of Coronation Street has led to sceptics accusing ITV of throwing short-term money at its ratings problem in order to improve its performance before agency negotiations.

Graham Duff, the managing director of ITV Sales, denied this was the case. "The fact this has emerged in the negotiation season is not that relevant. There's nothing particularly extravagant about this period of the schedule," he explained.

He added that ITV was also enjoying success in daytime with programmes such as The Paul O'Grady Show, which is being shown during the "shoulder-peak" slot which is crucial for building audiences throughout the evening.

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