BROOKE GLADSTONE: Almost every year since 1932, the reigning British monarch has addressed the nation on Christmas afternoon. It started on radio, with King George V -- the present queen's grandfather.* Now Queen Elizabeth II-'s Christmas message is heard on British TV and radio, and on many other networks around the world, and for the first time ever, her majesty is offering a telephone hotline so the troops serving in Iraq can hear her on their cell phones. But in recent years, viewership has drifted downward to below 10 million from a record high of 17 million back in 1987. Gareth Mitchell filed this report from London in anticipation of Christmas day.
QUEEN ELIZABETH II: As I look back over these past 12 months, I know that it has been about as full a year as I can remember. But Christmas itself still remains a time for reflection and a focus of hope for the future. All great religions have such times of renewal...
GARETH MITCHELL: As is the custom, the monarch referred back to the year just gone, and then went on to reflect on the Christian significance of Christmas. For Matt Wells, media correspondent at the Guardian, the annual broadcast serves at least one obvious purpose.
MATT WELLS: The queen doesn't have much contact with her subjects during the year apart from the occasional walkabout and appearances on television. She certainly doesn't speak to them very much. So it's the one opportunity for people in Britain who have little contact with the monarchy actually to hear the sound of their voice, and I think it's this slightly awed nature of the broadcast that makes it such a strong tradition.
GARETH MITCHELL: That strong tradition goes back to the broadcast's early days when it was an opportunity for the monarch to talk to the British empire. Though most of the empire has gone now, the queen's former spokesman, Dickie Arbiter, says that the sentiments of the address, largely based on values and spirituality, remain much the same.
DICKIE ARBITER: At the end of the day, this is a Christmas message to the Commonwealth, and there is the religious aspect to it, without ramming home the idea of Christianity. It's also a sort of look back on the year, of some of the highlights of the year, and with television, they try to bring in the pictures of some of these highlights.
GARETH MITCHELL: Filming footage from royal tourists to include in the Christmas message is a fairly recent innovation. Until about five years ago, the queen simply addressed the camera. In recent transmissions, the queen has treated viewers to glimpses of Windsor Castle, and she's tried all kinds of TV techniques usually reserved for the slick media professionals -- a royal effort to craft must-see TV. And to be sure that it is...
MATT WELLS: The queen's Christmas broadcast is shown at 3 o'clock on the two major television networks in Britain. They take it in turns to produce it and show it at the same time.
GARETH MITCHELL: Guardian media correspondent Matt Wells.
MATT WELLS: So it's one of those very few leftovers of patrician Britain where the broadcasters almost tell you that actually now you have to sit down and watch this.
GARETH MITCHELL: And for those viewers who consider the queen's message the television equivalent of watching paint dry, there is an option.
MATT WELLS: Channel Four, one of the more subversive British broadcasters, doesn't broadcast the queen's Christmas message. Instead, it broadcasts an alternative Christmas message, as it describes it. It invites controversial or interesting figures from the year to come and give their take on Christmas.
GARETH MITCHELL: The contents of the queen's broadcast are always a closely-guarded secret. By sweet-talking Buckingham Palace, I was hoping to bring a scoop to On the Media, but sadly, to no avail. Uniquely, the queen's words in the Christmas message are her own. Just about everything else she utters in public is prepared by the government. The personal tone and its strict embargo is always a welcome Christmas gift to journalists manning the country's otherwise quiet newsrooms. Matt Wells.
MATT WELLS: For the British newspapers and the British news broadcasters, the queen's Christmas message gives them a bit of a handle on Christmas day, and indeed, in recent years, the queen's Christmas broadcast has made the top of the headlines. So it is still very much a talking point.
GARETH MITCHELL: But who's going to be tuning in this year? Well I thought the Kensington area of London, close to the former home of the late Princess of Wales, would be a good place to canvas some opinion from the streets as to whether the broadcast is a must-see Christmas day event. [STREET AMBIENCE]
GARETH MITCHELL: Will you be watching the broadcast this year?
MAN: Absolutely. Yes.
GARETH MITCHELL: Why is that?
MAN: It's the thing you do every year, so -- gotta see, gotta see the Old Girl on TV. Absolutely. Has to be done.
WOMAN: I think it's on at the wrong time -- during the day.
GARETH MITCHELL: So it's 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It's not convenient for you.
WOMAN: It's not. No. No.
MAN: I normally do tend to watch it, but-- don't really pay that much attention. It's just a traditional thing of just moving wallpaper, I think.
GARETH MITCHELL: Do you think it's a good thing that it still happens though?
MAN: Ah, it's part of tradition, and-- she is still the monarch of the country, after all.
GARETH MITCHELL: Ah, well the nation might be shrugging its shoulders now, but the telly event will be watched, as usual, by millions. But that's just us British few. I mean, it's not as if we celebrate the fact that the queen's head is on our currency. But talk of replacing it with the Euro, and we suddenly come over all patriotic. So, whilst it's true that there might be a collective glazing over of the eyes across Britain at 3 p.m. on December the 25th, to even think of a yuletide without the queen's speech -- well, it's just not cricket, is it? For On the Media, this is Gareth Mitchell in London. * In the original broadcast, we misidentified King George V as Queen Elizabeth II's father.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a pitiless look back at television's recent past, and television composers race against the clock.