Wednesday, May 23, 2018
TV and Media

Holiday TV specials take over in December

At the very least, the War on Christmas is not being waged on television.

As streaming and technology tear apart so many rules that governed television for decades, one tradition has endured, and might be stronger than ever: With December here, viewers are getting a regular dose of all things holiday. Frosty and Rudolph are still plugging away, as is Bill Murray in a Christmas song-and-dance special recently released on Netflix. Many of the networks, NBC chief among them, may as well wrap their network logos in holly and poinsettias.

There's a reason for this, particularly for the broadcast networks. Many prime-time series have finished their first-half runs for the season, and advertisers are desperately trying to get their commercials on the air. If there's one thing that people still reliably tune in to, and those ad folks pay for, it's holiday television.

NBC's December prime-time lineup is dominated by holiday fare standbys like the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center, a prime-time Saturday Night Live Christmas special and a Michael Bublé special.

"We started talking about it a couple of years ago," said Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment. "It was jump-started by The Sound of Music, where we went, Oooh, there's a big audience available for special stuff when you're near the holidays.' We know that Thanksgiving specials and Christmas specials Rudolph, Charlie Brown rate really well, so a couple of years ago, we started building up that strategy."

Some of the holiday fare is a byproduct of necessity. The networks have mostly stopped airing reruns for regularly scheduled shows because of poor ratings. As a result, many popular prime-time shows reach their midseason breaks earlier than they used to. ABC's Thursday night lineup ended in mid-November. So what to put on in December?

"You got to keep the lights on every single month," Greenblatt said.

December is a critical month, he explained, in which to promote January premieres. And though viewership is gradually receding as the year winds down, the month remains "one of the biggest in terms of advertising dollars," said Brad Adgate, a former executive at Horizon Media, a media buying company.

Enter the specials, and the holiday programming, some of it decades old. ABC's broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas on Nov. 30 had 7.3 million viewers, its highest total in three years.

"Even in an era of fragmented television, you don't have to market those shows," Adgate said. "When someone says Charlie Brown's on, it resonates with millions of viewers."

The popularity of holiday programming is, of course, not limited to the broadcast networks. The Hallmark Channel's December lineup is dominated by Christmas specials, and on Dec. 4, Netflix rolled out A Very Murray Christmas starring Bill Murray.

ABC will run holiday episodes for several comedies, while CBS will do it for almost half of its series, including dramas like Scorpion and NCIS: Los Angeles. For that show, the holiday theme will include a North Korean spy being hit by a truck carrying Christmas trees.

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