MEDIA: Perspective - A festive boost for multi-channel but scant cheer at ITV

By late December, after several days of liver-sapping merriment, it was time for a workout. Pork pie in one hand and a beer in the other, I was ready for five gruelling heats and the final of World's Strongest Man on BBC1. Must-see TV if you share my strange fascination for watching giant Swedes and Poles suffer an aneurysm.

Otherwise television over Christmas was more than a little lacklustre.

Much has already been written about multi-channel share of viewing overtaking ITV's share during Christmas week for the first time (22.4 per cent compared to 22.2 per cent). Grim for the network, especially as the BBC held its traditional Christmas number-one slot with around 30 per cent share.

There may be hope for ITV and the other terrestrial channels in that many forecasts, including Zenith Optimedia's December report, suggest that leading advertisers will increase TV adspend in 2003. But ITV isn't getting too carried away. Early indications after the end-of-year deals were completed are that ITV's share of advertising is down, Sky has done well and IDS/Flextech not so well. In this week's Forum, Five's Nick Milligan is bullish (perhaps too bullish?) about the year ahead and Channel 4 should be hoping for a better year.

But back to multi-channel. Much of its Christmas success can be attributed to Sky and ITV2, which are both flying at the moment. Fresh from its lucky escape at the hands of the regulator before the festive season, Sky is set for its best year yet with both City analysts and media agencies predicting a strong performance.

It's easy to see why Sky did so well at Christmas and throughout the year (Sky Sports' live broadcast of Manchester United versus Arsenal last May was the highest rating non-terrestrial transmission of the year) because some of its one-off events (big football matches and films such as Shrek) offered live and premiered material lacking from the terrestrial schedules.

To be fair, ITV has long given up at Christmas and can take some crumbs of comfort from the performance of ITV2, which recorded several entries in the top 20 2002 non-terrestrial shows.

But looking at multi-channel's top performing shows the lack of variety is painfully obvious. Friends (E4) and The Simpsons (Sky One) aside, the leading programmes were all football matches or Pop Idol updates. For advertisers seeking large ABC1 audiences of both sexes, multi-channel still can't compete with some of the quality drama and entertainment offered on terrestrial.

That said, my favourite Christmas TV moment came on Sky Sports. Sid Waddell, Sky Sports' darts commentator, summed up the superhuman qualities of former World Darts champion Phil Taylor in the following memorable phrase: "This kid's a member of the Mount Olympus Working Men's Club.", Sky's sponsor for the programme, should be very pleased.