With about 50 specials, movies and holiday-themed series episodes scheduled this month on the three major networks alone, viewers understandably might find the blizzard of holiday good cheer becoming one big blur.
But take a closer look: The shows that CBS, NBC and ABC choose to broadcast reflect programming philosophies that help define each network’s year-round personality.
Got a hankering, for example, for animated classics? It’s CBS all the way. In the mood for a warm family TV movie? Try NBC. And viewers who’d rather spend the season with familiar faces might appreciate ABC’s decision to spread holiday cheer via “theme” episodes of their regular shows rather than a slew of specials.
“We don’t like to preempt our series,” said Ted Harbert, vice president for prime time at ABC. “Ever since our series schedule has been starting to work, in the last couple of seasons, we’ve been doing fewer specials than during times when we were the No. 3 network and had a lot of problems in our series area. We did a lot more specials then.”
Inching closer to No. 1 NBC in the ongoing ratings war, ABC will stick fairly close to its normal schedule through the holidays. The network will broadcast only two new prime-time specials--"The New Kids on the Block Christmas Special” on Dec. 14 and “Dolly Parton: Christmas at Home” on Dec. 21--and will rerun one TV movie, “Roots: The Gift,” on Christmas Eve. But at least 10 of ABC’s regular series will feature holiday episodes; among them “The Wonder Years” on Dec. 19, “The Young Riders” Dec. 15, “thirtysomething” on Dec. 18 and “Full House” on Dec. 28.
“Specials serve two purposes,” Harbert said. “One is, yes, to put on a special event. Another is to fill time periods where your series aren’t working.”
But Paul Wang, vice president for program and media planning at NBC, which says it is showing an “unprecedented number” of holiday movies, specials and series episodes this year, disagrees that there is a correlation between network status and hours of special programming.
“I’d say that a No. 1 network--and you can define that not only in terms of overall audience reach but in terms of the network’s image or product--has to put on a fair amount of specials. And I think it’s sort of cynical to believe that doing these things or not doing these things should be solely based on how your series are doing,” Wang said.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, NBC plans at least 15 specials and five series with holiday themes, including the new TV movies “A Mom for Christmas” on Dec. 17, a fairy tale starring Olivia Newton-John; and the comedy “Guess Who’s Coming for Christmas?” on Dec. 23, with Richard Mulligan and Beau Bridges.
“If there is a little bit less Christmas stuff on the other networks, there’s even a greater advantage to us this year,” Wang said. He noted that rival CBS has always had a large number of specials, even during the 20-odd years it was No. 1 in the ratings.
Certainly, when it comes to classic animated fare, CBS cornered the market early. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on Dec. 19) TV’s longest-running cartoon special, first aired on CBS in 1965; the network has repeated it every year since. “Frosty the Snowman” on Dec. 19 has been a CBS tradition since 1969. And “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on Dec. 14, television’s longest-running special, was acquired by the network in 1972 after an eight-year run on NBC. (“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” aired on CBS from 1966-88, now belongs to Turner Broadcasting and was shown on the TNT cable channel.)
“We have a very fortunate inventory of classics that, through people viewing them each year, have become part of the fabric of enjoying the holiday,” said Peter Tortorici, senior vice president for program planning at CBS. “For the classics, the ratings are fantastic. They’ve always outperformed whatever they replaced.”
All three network executives conceded that even during the season of goodwill and giving, the R-word does come up. They disagreed, however, about the extent to which specials boost ratings.
“If you’ve been running all those (children’s) Christmas specials every year, they become overexposed to the generation of children that is available to watch them,” Harbert said of some of ABC’s past shows. “It got to the point where the ratings weren’t good any more and they went off the air.”
Declining ratings may have forced some network specials, such as “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” into syndication or onto cable. But viewership has remained respectable for “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “Charlie Brown” and “Grinch.” “Rudolph,” for example, has attracted an average 26.5% of the audience during the last 10 years, and “Grinch” was TNT’s 10th-highest rated program for 1989.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the networks consciously seek to develop specials that will hold up for decades, said Robby London, senior vice president of creative affairs at DIC Enterprises Inc. DIC produced ABC’s animated “New Kids on the Block Christmas Special,” as well as its Saturday-morning “New Kids” series.
“I can only conjecture, because it’s ultimately the networks that make these decisions,” London said, “but even though these are prime-time specials, the (children’s specials) are basically run out of the networks’ Saturday-morning departments, which are sensitized to current hot properties as opposed to classics. The networks don’t own the shows, so they don’t have any incentive to create a perennial show.”
“We don’t set out to develop things for the long term,” Harbert said. “We develop shows that are good and that we think the audience will like. There isn’t too much of a science to it beyond that. If ‘New Kids’ does wonderfully this year, we’ll run it again next year. But a generation gets involved with a certain phenomenon, and then another generation comes. Kids keep you on your toes.”
“I think our view is, every show you do you hope becomes a classic,” said CBS’ Tortorici, “but we don’t take an either-or position. We continue to show the classics, but at the same time, we’ll keep looking for new properties.”