This past weekend, millions of households participated in a time-honored tradition of kicking-off the Christmas season by sitting down to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas together as a family.
A Charlie Brown Christmas continues to delight generations of children and adults while serving as a reminder, year after year, of what Christmas is truly all about.
It also serves as a reminder that network executives know as little today about what audiences want as they did in 1965, when it first aired.
Most fans of the classic cartoon are aware that CBS management was nervous about airing a show with such an explicitly Christian message. Peanuts creator Charles Schultz didn’t want just another holiday special that tied into a popular song or merchandizing scheme. In fact, the resulting special was explicitly anti-commercialism, as Charlie Brown laments, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” And Schultz had to fight for the inclusion of a passage of Scripture from the Book of Luke. But viewers embraced it and it became an instant hit that has continued to perform well in the ratings nearly 50 years on.
In fact, most of those old holiday specials that the networks dust off and add to their rotation once a year — How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman — continue to perform well in the ratings. Better, in fact, than most of the original programming the networks are churning out. Better, even, than the annual flesh parade/infomercial that is the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, thus proving that sex doesn’t always sell.
Last year the Fashion Show attracted about 9.3 million viewers. Nearly a million fewer viewers than watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that same night, and about 2 million fewer than watched the relatively family-friendly singing competition The Voice, also that same evening.
Ratings for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (which has already been recorded for this year and will air next week) are respectable enough, I suppose. But they’re far from spectacular, and less impressive still when one considers that although the program is different every year and features performances by Billboard toppers, it’s still not drawing numbers like those old Holiday specials we’ve all seen dozens of times before. And one can’t help but wonder how many of the viewers are there for the fashion show, and how many are there for the performers.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show really shouldn’t have made the jump from internet to broadcast television at all. And the fact that it’s still airing after twelve years is not so much a testament to its success at delivering viewers as it is to the lack of imagination and creativity on the part of network executives. Even if it was primarily geared to adults, it would still be fair to criticize the program for the blatant objectification and commercialization of the Christmas season. But it’s not primarily geared to adults. At least, not any longer. In the beginning, perhaps, when they invited Rupert Everett to host and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli to perform; but in recent years Victoria’s Secret has been going for a much younger audience, as evidenced by their choice of performers, which has included Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and this year, Taylor Swift, as well as the program’s focus on the teen and pre-teen targeted “Pink” brand.
During the Holidays, families are looking for feel-good programming that brings them together, and when it is offered, they support it in droves. And the networks should be focusing their creative energies on creating more of it. Instead, the only innovation the networks have introduced to the Holiday line-up in the last twelve or thirteen years is an hour-long commercial for a brand that feeds off of teen girls’ insecurities about their bodies and budding sexuality while reinforcing the harmful message, already so prevalent in the media, that sexuality is all our girls have to offer. The antithesis, really, of A Charlie Brown Christmas.