5 Holiday TV Specials We Might Increasingly Tune Out

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Every Christmas, old glass ornaments shatter, big-bulb lights are replaced with LEDs, office parties are canceled and small pieces of holiday tradition fade into oblivion.

Nat King Cole's soft reminders of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Burl Ives' repetitive rant about having a holly jolly Christmas still fill the air, but they're slowly beaten back by Mariah Carey's soaring high notes in All I Want For Christmas Is You. Even televised holiday standards have a tough time holding up to today's Disney ( DIS), DreamWorks ( DWA) and adult-approved Victoria's Secret holiday specials.

Somewhere around the 20th time we saw Ralphie put a violent end to the Scut Farkus affair on TBS last year, it occurred to us that some of the season's most cherished holiday specials are showing their age a bit. Scratch that: The specials most of America places among its holiday classics have been with us for nearly five decades or more.

This would be akin to the whole country taking one month out of the year to tune out Modern Family and replace it with The Milton Berle Show, pull The Big Bang Theory off the air for reruns of The Honeymooners and put Survivor out to pasture in favor of original episodes of What's My Line? Yet every year, major networks that are already seeing their share sapped away by cable, satellite and streaming options opt to air holiday chestnuts that were first shown long before most of their key demographics were born.

Does it pay off? Do Charlie Brown, Rudolph and the other holiday mainstays still draw the eyes and ad dollars they once did? We consulted with the folks at Nielsen ( NLSN) and got more than five years' worth of ratings for a handful of holiday favorites. The numbers aren't altogether merry, but these specials' continued presence in network lineups and performance against newer shows provides some reason for holiday cheer.

It's A Wonderful Life
Debut: 1946 (in theaters)
Current network: NBC ( CMCSA)

Air dates:
2007: Dec. 14 at 8 p.m., Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. Averaged 5.5/4.5 million viewers
2008: Dec. 13 at 8 p.m., Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. Averaged 4.9/5.3 million.
2009: Dec. 12 at 8 p.m.. Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. Averaged 4.5/5.3 million.
2010: Dec. 11 at 8 p.m., Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. Averaged 4.9/4.7 million.
2011: Dec. 3 at 8 p.m., Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. Averaged 4.5/4.8 million.
20012: Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. Averaged 4.2 million

Think 24 hours of A Christmas Story are unbearable? Gen Xers remember this film being shown just about once a day from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Director Frank Capra's story about working stiff George Bailey and his nagging need to put others before himself was aired ad infinitum during the late 1970s and 1980s after a clerical error let the film's copyright lapse and slipped it into the public domain. Local stations still paid royalties on it, as it was based on Phillip Van Doren Stern's short story The Greatest Gift, but were given a deep discount as the images themselves were no longer owned by anyone.

Republic Pictures eventually wanted its cut of the proceeds and enforced its copyright in 1993. Five years later, that copyright went to Paramount after its sprawling parent company Viacom ( VIA.B) bought Republic in 1998.

Since then, NBC has held the broadcast license on the film and has aired It's A Wonderful Life only twice a year. That would be just fine if the world somehow held itself in stasis since the '90s, but the decreasing dependence on networks and glut of new content from various sources made It's A Wonderful Life a very small part of an enormous holiday television landscape. Still aired in its original black-and-white, It's A Wonderful Life couldn't be more foreign to younger, device-toting audiences if its dialogue was broadcast in Martian.

Its ratings numbers have slacked a bit over the years, but how it fares all depends on when it's being shown. This year's showing on Dec. 1, for example, finished dead last behind college football on ABC and Fox and Made In Jersey, a Criminal Minds rerun and 48 Hours on CBS. Last Christmas Eve, however, George Bailey and company had the highest ratings of any network broadcast, soundly beating Fox's Terra Nova and an ABC showing of The Sound of Music. Eat it, Von Trapps.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
Debut: 1964
Current network: CBS ( CBS)

Air dates:
2007: Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. Averaged 14.6 million viewers.
2008: Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. Averaged 11.8 million.
2009: Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. Averaged 10.6 million.
2010: Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. Averaged 12.2 million.
2011: Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. Averaged 12.6 million.
2012: Dec. 4 at 8 p.m., Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. Averaged 10.1 million/6.81 million.

Rudolph and that blinking nose of his are nothing if not moneymakers. The neon-nosed reindeer made his debut in 1939 in a booklet handed out by the Montgomery Ward department store. A decade later, Gene Autry turned a song about the maligned misfit into a No. 1 single.

By the time NBC got around to commissioning Rankin/Bass to make a stop-motion animated special about Rudolph in 1964, it was clear he had some marketing potential. NBC's parent company, GE, included elves from the special in ads for its appliances during the special's first airing. Burl Ives, who voiced the show's snowman narrator, first sang Holly Jolly Christmas for the special and turned it into a hit single a year later.

Rudolph's nose is still a a bright spot for CBS, which took over the rights to the special in 1998 and has pulled in more than 10 million viewers with it for the past six years. This year, it finished second only to NBC's The Voice in its time slot and drew more viewers than The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, which CBS aired an hour later.

Last Friday, Rudolph finished second to ABC's Last Man Standing (6.98 million), but had a bigger audience among adults in the 18-49 demographic. Not bad for the longest-running Christmas special on television and -- with all apologies to Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox -- a form of animation that went down in history long ago.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Debut: 1965
Current network: ABC

Air dates:
2007: Nov. 27 at 8 p.m., Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. Averaged 13.6/8.6 million viewers.
2008: Dec. 8 at 8 p.m., Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. Averaged 11.1/8.4 million.
2009: Dec. 8 at 8 p.m., Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. Averaged 11.2/6.5 million.
2010: Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. Averaged 8.1/6.4 million.
2011: Dec. 7 at 8 p.m.. Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. Averaged 9.1/6.4 million.
2012: Nov. 28 at 8 p.m. Averaged 8.8 million.

Yes, Charlie Brown's numbers aren't much to look at and are drooping lower than an undernourished Christmas twig, but they're still impressive for a show that was never supposed to be.

Peanuts comic strip creator Charles M. Schultz and director Bill Melendez got Coca-Cola ( KO) to believe in them when they first pitched the idea of a Peanuts Christmas special, but even their funding wasn't enough to convince the show's original network, CBS, which hated just about everything about it. They hated Linus telling the story of the birth of Jesus, they hated that the voice actors were children who delivered choppy dialogue, they hated Vince Guaraldi's jazz soundtrack, they hated that it didn't have a laugh track.

Even the creators weren't happy with the final product. Coca-Cola's sponsorship wasn't much, so the shoestring budget didn't allow for luxuries such as sound quality and editing time. But all of those elements that were nitpicked then and parodied now are among some of the show's beloved quirks that keep generations coming back.

The first airing of Charlie Brown this year finished third behind CBS' Survivor (10.34 million viewers) and NBC's Christmas in Rockefeller Center tree-lighting special (9.1 million) and ahead of Fox's X Factor (8.1 million). Among adults 18-49, however, Charlie's still No. 1 and keeps earning his Hark, The Herald Angels Sing serenade.

Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
Debut: 1970
Current network: ABC (with subsequent airings on ABC Family)

Air dates:
2007: ABC Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. Averaged 9.3 million viewers.
2008: ABC Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. Averaged 9 million.
2009: ABC Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. Averaged 7.6 million.
2010: ABC Dec. 2 at 8 p.m Averaged 7.4 million.
2011: ABC Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. Averaged 7.2 million.
2012: ABC Dec. 2 at 8 p.m./Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. Averaged 7.4/5.6 million.

A relative youngster compared with the early entries on this list, this stop-motion Mickey Rooney/Fred Astaire take on Santa's origin story has aged the least gracefully of the bunch.

There are any number of problems that might be at the root of Santa's recent woes. Maybe it's the German dictator that serves as the film's main antagonist. As great as we're sure the name Burgermeister Meisterburger sounded at the time, a totalitarian leader who burns toys and imprisons those possessing them couldn't be more thinly veiled if his name was Rudolph Miffler.

The other issue is that, while just as long as most holiday specials at 51 minutes without commercials, it's dated, uncomfortable musical numbers just make it seem far, far older. It's also never quite made the same connection with audiences as Rudolph and has one foot in that dreaded second tier of holiday programming that includes another Rankin/Bass animated mainstay: Frosty The Snowman. Not only have both Frosty and Santa been relegated to ABC Family's 25 Days Of Christmas lineup with straight-to-video spinoffs and Mario Lopez made-for-TV movies, but when they do show up on networks, it's as a punching bag for newer shows.

Frosty reeled in 6.7 million viewers during his first CBS airing on Nov. 23, but dropped to a paltry 4.1 million on Dec. 8 when other holiday options began cropping up. Santa, meanwhile, spent Dec. 11 having his audience doubled by NBC's The Voice (11.3 million) and more than tripled by NCIS. Don't look to the kids to save Santa, either, as The Voice and NCIS brought in more than two times Santa's viewers ages 18-49. Seriously -- NCIS. One of those CBS initialism shows watched by grandparents and folks in hospital waiting rooms drew more "young" people than Santa Claus.

Holiday purists can keep on believing that Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town somehow has more inherent holiday value or pop culture cachet than a rerun of the 2000 Leslie Nielsen made-for-TV holiday movie Santa Who?, but audiences and ABC beg to differ. While it may take another generation to banish Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town from network television entirely, it looks like this special is becoming as forgotten as Santa's penguin sidekick Topper.

A Christmas Story
Debut: 1983 (in theaters)
Current network: TBS
Air date: From 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve to 8 p.m. on Christmas Day each year.

Nielsen couldn't even pull the ratings data for Jean Shepard's holiday mainstay because the constant re-airings just make it a nightmare to track. It's been run marathon-style by the folks at Turner since 1997, switched from TNT to TBS in 2004 and has been ratings gold ever since.

The audience for the entire marathon grew from more than 38 million people tuning in at one time or another more than a decade ago to roughly 54 million watching Santa kick Ralphie down the slide or Flick stick his tongue to the flagpole in 2009. The first showing on Christmas Eve regularly registers between 4.3 million and 4.5 million viewers. Last year, the 10 a.m. showing on Christmas Day drew more than 4.5 million viewers, making it the second-most popular cable program of the day behind TNT's noon showing of NBA Basketball. Of the Top 10 programs on cable television last Christmas, showings of A Christmas Story accounted for six of them. http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/12/28/sunday-cable-ratings-nba-a-christmas-story-marathon-dominate-christmas-leverage/114774/

It's absolute genius on the part of TBS and its parent company, Time Warner ( TWX). They provide a full day of holiday programming with minimal effort and in return they become the Christmas default for millions of households. This has spawned a bunch of surly haters who bristle at the mere mention of the line "You'll shoot your eye out," but why get so mad? It appears on exactly one channel -- one that's usually filled with reruns of Seinfeld, Friends and Tyler Perry shows. If you want to avoid it, you know what channel to block. If you just want to complain about it, you're pretty much letting people know you have nothing better to do on Christmas than watch old sitcoms.

Two solutions: go blog about it; or do what U.S. television watchers on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have been doing for 15 years, and use Jean Shepard's dulcet tones as your excuse to take a nap.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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