Last week I wrote about the dearth of new Christmas songs, but there’s a similar problem with a lack of new Christmas TV. In this case, the conglomeration of the entertainment industry can’t be to blame — there are way more channels now than there used to be. Instead, networks are actually using the lack of new Christmas TV as a marketing tool.
Consider CBS’s Nov. 29 airing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a special that’s nearly a half-century old and looks it, with primitive animation and a setting where institutionalized bullying goes unquestioned, even by Santa himself. Despite the millions of videos and DVDs sold to people who can now watch it whenever they want, it captured more than 12.6 million viewers willing to sit through (or zap) the commercials to get a fix of televised holiday tradition. I suspect that tradition is behind a lot of what’s going on here. CBS even advertised the broadcast as such, meaning “come gather the family around the TV, and watch this for the umpteenth time.”
Compare that to Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, based on a popular children’s animated film franchise, which had its televised world premiere Thanksgiving night. Not only did it fall short of Rudolph with 7.1 million viewers, it was thumped in its time slot by a repeat of The Big Bang Theory. Heavily advertised on FOX and featuring the films’ original voice cast, the special wasn’t great, but it probably would have been better had it not had to be crammed into a half-hour time slot.
Over at the movie theater, meanwhile, it seems like hardly a holiday season goes by without a new cinematic entry to the Christmas canon. This year’s Arthur Christmas boasts a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has grossed over $33 million in the U.S.’, and seems destined to join this century’s The Polar Express, Elf, and The Grinch in an ever-growing oeuvre.
It seems counterintuitive that in film, where there’s so much more money at stake, producers are more inclined to invest in new properties, while TV viewers have to make do with dusty reruns and the likes of Merry Madagascar. But then it’s all about supply and demand. Over the long winter break, parents willing to take the kids to the multiplex will see anything with Santa in it, so there’s no shortage of demand for something new. Whereas when it comes to plunking the kids down in front of the tube for a bit so they can get some wrapping done, most parents probably feel more comfortable with the shows they remember from when they grew up than … well, let’s put it this way: in Mammoth Christmas, Sid the Sloth creates the world’s first star-shaped Christmas tree topper out of snow that he inadvertently packed into his anus.
It’s also an issue of resources. There’s currently not the infrastructure in place to do what Rankin, Bass, Hanna, and Barbera used to do, so some of today’s movie animation mills are stepping in. But perhaps if 1960s relics like Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch were to make more room on the schedule, more producers might find it more worthwhile to expend some effort coming up with their own new entries. Sure, we all love A Charlie Brown Christmas, but its anti-commercialization message is even more of a whistle in a windstorm now than it was then, especially when you can buy a licensed Charlie Brown Christmas Tree (now bent under the weight of its own irony.) Who wouldn’t give that up for a biannual Pixar special, for instance, or something with the imagination of Arthur Christmas or Elf or even Fred Claus? Heck, I’ve defended remakes in this space before, so I’d even take an update of The Little Drummer Boy that isn’t too sad for my son to sit through or a remake of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town that doesn’t spend quite so much time focusing on Mrs. Claus’s thinly-veiled sexual awakening.
There’s been talk the past few years about how storytelling on television has begun to surpass film in some areas. The holidays are not one of those areas, even though there are multiple themes to work with at this time of year (how about a Channukah or Kwanzaa special, at long last?) But someday, with a little vision and creative risk-taking, they could be.