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A once-popular tradition — the holiday TV special — is all but lost

By Scott Collins and Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Roll over Bing Crosby, and tell Perry Como the news: Christmas variety specials on TV are getting a lump of coal from viewers.

Once a holiday staple — the same week in 1973, easy-listening stars Como and Andy Williams each drew more than 40 percent of the TV audience with their respective Christmas shows — the format has lately proved about as popular as sour eggnog. That’s true even when a huge star is on the marquee. ABC’s “A Very Gaga Thanksgiving,” a vehicle for pop diva Lady Gaga, last month produced very un-Gaga-like ratings. NBC’s “Michael Buble Christmas,” starring the popular retro crooner, spread cheer to just 7.1 million viewers — and was beaten by a repeat of “NCIS.”

But lackluster ratings aren’t the only factor — celebrities and networks alike seem to be taking a holiday from the genre, although one TV executive says that may soon change. The season’s schedules nowadays are more likely to be filled with old animated fare like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the 1964 stop-motion classic from Rankin/Bass that last month delivered 12.6 million viewers for CBS — making it this year’s No. 1 Christmas special.

So what’s the problem with variety shows? Today’s would-be Bob Hopes have a lot of competition, experts say.

“There was no MTV or Nickelodeon to run to,” television historian Tim Brooks said of the Christmas variety specials’ golden era during the 1960s and 1970s.

The growth of cable television, coupled with the emergence of new musical forms that appeal to ever-narrower niches, has made it nearly impossible to create a one-size-fits-all special.

“Because of this fragmentation we haven’t been able to develop stars with extremely broad appeal who could carry a Christmas special,” Brooks said.

It’s all a long way from 40 years ago, when cozy specials featuring cardigan-wearing hosts sipping hot chocolate and fondling yuletide props became as ubiquitous as “Silent Night.”

An early leader in the category was Crosby, the smooth pop crooner who became synonymous with the holidays due to his recording of “White Christmas,” often cited as the bestselling record of all-time.

Reviewing Crosby’s TV special in 1963, Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “As Bing’s voice was the voice of America to many of us during the war (Tokyo Rose graciously played Crosby records by the stack) his voice is now the voice of Christmas to me.”

Hope, Crosby’s sometime movie partner who began doing Christmas shows for the U.S. military in 1942, turned them into a perennial event (although because they were taped overseas, NBC would air them in January, well after the holidays were over). In 1980, NBC’s “Bob Hope Christmas Special” drew more than 27 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

The holly-and-ivy market grew so crowded that song-and-dance woman Mitzi Gaynor had to reassure the Times in 1967 that “our show is different — really.” By the late 1970s, even entertainers such as singer John Davidson and magician Doug Henning had Christmas specials. Most were forgotten as quickly as last year’s stocking stuffers, although some bits have survived: An unlikely mash-up with David Bowie from 1977’s “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” has remained popular, with more than 1 million YouTube hits.

Such holiday fare conformed to the notion of “least objectionable programming” that then held sway at ABC, CBS and NBC, according to Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. The performers tended to be white, middle-of-the-road entertainers, often out of step with the rock and soul revolutions then seizing the music industry. But in a three-channel universe, TV programmers felt constrained to aim as broadly as possible.

“It was during the network era, when you didn’t expect any demographic to really love it,” Thompson said of the Christmas shows. “But every demographic could tolerate it.”

As the old generation faded away, younger pop performers have tried to pick up the garland. In 2003, VH1 aired “A Kid Rock Christmas” — whose host is not typically associated with the holidays. That same year, MTV trotted out a special starring Ozzy Osbourne and his brood at the height of their reality show’s popularity. But lately the specials have slowed to a trickle, with Gaga and Buble virtually alone among stars trying to make a go of it.

Buble’s special had fewer viewers this year than old animated hits such as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Yet NBC nevertheless saw it as a path back to the holiday specials business.

“We saw that as sort of a dipping our toe back in the water, and one that we’re extremely pleased with the result from a ratings point of view and just general critical reception,” said Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late-night programming for NBC. “Michael is an artist that actually has a surprisingly broad and deep reach.”

That means that even if Christmas specials have waved goodbye for now, a la Frosty the Snowman, they’ll be back someday.

“I think we have the talent contacts and the talent on our own air to pull something like this together,” Telegdy said. “There’s something about the nostalgia.”

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