That '60s 'Rudolph' still flies

Washington Post

Tonight, two television shows that date to the '60s will air on CBS in prime time. They will be slow and corny, with out-of-date animation. Most viewers will have seen them before, some dozens of times. And if history holds true, millions and millions of Americans across the nation will sit down and watch what they could just as easily have rented or purchased at a video store and watched at their convenience.

Say hello, once again, to "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Welcome back, "Frosty the Snowman."

In the era of DVDs and TiVo and everything-on-demand, when television is downloadable and life seems to play out either in fast forward or in instant replay, the classic Christmas television specials seem to hold a unique spot in our culture. Frosty, Rudolph, Charlie Brown, the Grinch, Kris Kringle: The mention of the names taps a well of nostalgia.

It's about the shared experience, the childhood memories that powerfully linger and the new memories adults are so desperate to create with their kids. For overscheduled kids and overworked parents eating microwaved meals and playing with individualized electronic gadgets, Rudolph, it appears, is an oasis of old-fashioned holiday feeling.

"It's about the holidays and children and how really important it is for families to have a sense of tradition," says Linda Gulyn, a professor of psychology at Marymount University who specializes in child development. "Most of us parents grew up with this experience, especially around the holidays, and we have a strong need to pass on tradition."

Make no mistake, it's the parents driving this train. Parents who hope their kids will fall in love with the poor ostracized elf who wants to be a dentist and befriends Rudolph. And empathize with Charlie Brown and his efforts to find the true meaning of Christmas. Maybe the evil Burgermeister Meisterburger (from "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town") will scare them just a little, but that's part of the pleasure. Just like learning the words to the Heat Miser's song.

"I'm Mr. Heat Miser, I'm Mr. Sun," sings Amy Habeck to her 6-year-old twin daughters, trying to see if it provokes a memory. "Do you remember that one?"

Apparently, not yet (it's from "The Year Without a Santa Claus"). But the two Chicago girls, visiting Washington with their parents this week, quickly name "Frosty" and "Rudolph" as their favorite holiday shows. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the Dr. Seuss classic that will air Christmas Eve on TBS, will likely be given favored status this year -- Habeck expects not only to watch but to record it on DVR.

"When we were young, we didn't have the opportunity to watch them on tape," says Beth Lohr, of Frederick, Md., who has daughters ages 11 and 8.

"But even with them on tape, we still make a point of sitting down and watching them (on the networks) together. It's the tradition. You can stick a tape in by yourself, but this is still a time for families to watch together."

And that's why the networks continue to find success airing the shows in prime time.

"The DVD market has really hurt a lot of theatrical movies on TV, for instance, and made it very tough to air those," CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl says. "That same logic really could have impacted these specials, but it hasn't."

On Tuesday night, "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" pulled in approximately 11 million prime-time viewers for ABC, winning the time slot among not only small children and parent-aged adults but also in the lucrative 18- to 49-year-old market. ABC drew 13 million viewers last week with "A Charlie Brown Christmas," airing for the 41st consecutive year. "Rudolph" has brought in 15 million viewers each of the past two holiday seasons.

None of the shows draw as well as they did a decade ago, but that's more a reflection of the proliferation of channels, especially cable options, than the popularity of the programs.

"Everything is relative," says ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader, who points out that most of these programs do far better than the regular shows they are replacing for the night. They fill a niche -- programs that bring adults and kids together -- in the same way as such popular shows as "Dancing With the Stars" and "American Idol."

"There's a resonance to them," Bader says. "It's very, very hard to do new Christmas specials now."

But will the timeless quality of the programs stretch into yet another generation? Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, expects it will.

"It's not just the act of watching them, it's the ritual of having them on, when they are on," Thompson says. "The energy is coming much more from the parents than from the kids.

"However," he said, "by the time those kids get to be 20, and they've left the halcyon days of youth ... when they have mortgages, and jobs ... I think they're going to pull the same nostalgia thing on their kids. Very few things in popular culture make those kind of generational jumps."

A grandfather now, Shy-Quon Ely of Washington fondly remembers watching all the holiday specials with his five children.

"We always knew it was Christmas season when 'Rudolph,' 'Charlie Brown,' things like that came on," he says. "We would plan for it. We'd go get cookies and chips and milk and pop.... "

Ely's children have moved away, but one of his daughters and her two young girls visited him this week. Alas, he won't be able to share in their youthful enthusiasm when "Rudolph" and "Frosty" air tonight.

Chances are, though, he'll be watching anyway. Nostalgia can do that to you.

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