Programmed response TV: If it's holiday time, networks are ready to blanket viewers in warm, fuzzy programming, which families are ready to love and look for year after year.

December 10, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you expect to sit down tonight (or any night in the coming month) and watch your favorite network series as you have every week since late September, guess again. The series is probably being pre-empted for a holiday special of some kind -- or, at least, a special holiday episode.

For example, tonight CBS pre-empts the popular "Promised Land" for "Martha Stewart: Home for the Holidays," the %o homemaking maven's guide to creating a very Yuppie Christmas. It will be followed by Melissa Gilbert, Travis Tritt and Tim Matheson in "Christmas in My Hometown," a made-for-television movie about a corporate scrooge coming to a small town at Christmastime to downsize its biggest employer.

While many critics trash specials such as Stewart's as over-the-top commercialism and dismiss films such as "Christmas in My Hometown" as sentimental pap because of their predictably happy endings, these sorts of holiday specials are growing in popularity and garnering tens of millions of viewers, according to the A.C. Nielsen ratings.

One reason is their subtext of family, ritual and collective memory, analysts say.

For some baby boomer parents, there's the joy of introducing their children to the same specials they watched growing up. For viewers who find themselves away from or without family, the specials can offer the feeling of being part of a larger community -- members of an extended family.

"Certainly, in the last generation, there's a whole set of Christmas specials -- such as 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' and 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' -- that are as much a part of the holiday rituals as the food and the decorations. I think, in many households, watching them is the equivalent of going to hear Handel's 'Messiah,' " says Sheri Parks, an associate dean and associate professor at the University of Maryland College Park who specializes in television and families.

Shirley Peroutka, an associate professor and the director of Goucher College's communications program, agrees: "Christmas is an important time of ritual for many people in this country, and more and more television has started to fulfill the need for ritual. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing at all in the case of some holiday programming.

Seasonal chestnuts

There are different categories of Christmas programs, and delineations need to be made. Parks and Peroutka are talking about two of the three main programming categories -- evergreens and family specials.

Evergreens are programs that have been airing every holiday season for years. They can be animated children's specials such as "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" or feature films such as "Holiday Inn" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

What's important are their annual repetition and the audience's expectation of it. That's why it was such big news when "It's a Wonderful Life" went out of public domain last year and suddenly stopped airing every hour on the hour during the holiday season.

NBC, which purchased the rights, will show it on Dec. 21 in this the film's 50th anniversary. Last year's showing was one of the highest-rated events of the season despite the fact that millions already own the videocassette (600,000 videos of the film are sold annually).

"Just last weekend, I sat and watched my older brother as he watched 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' with this look of joy -- that's the word -- on his face: Christmas had begun," Parks says.

"And for my husband, it's the same with 'It's a Wonderful Life.' When it came out of the public domain and stopped running every hour, I had to get him a video, because it's not Christmas if he doesn't see 'It's a Wonderful Life' several times. We'll also watch it as a family [on NBC] this year," Parks adds.

Peroutka says it's the same with her family and "Holiday Inn."

"My family and I have developed our set of TV rituals. Every year, we look forward to watching 'Holiday Inn.' We don't go out and rent the tape, we wait for it to come on television and then gather together as a family around the television," Peroutka says, using the television-as-hearth metaphor that Parks also uses to describe the experience.

And, lest you think such analysis is limited to academics, Hollywood producer Jimmy Hawkins -- who played George Bailey's son in "It's a Wonderful Life" -- says, "I think there is added pleasure for many people in seeing the film on television, because of the sharing with family and the sense of ritual involved. I think people really enjoyed the repetition when it played over and over, along with the fact that they could share it with their children."

Hollywood is aware of what's going on among the generations parent-to-child. Parks says you can see it in new animated specials that are made to look old-fashioned, such as "The Story of Santa Claus," with voices by Ed Asner and Betty White, which aired earlier this month.

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