Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tonight's Regularly Scheduled Program Will Not Be Seen...

Back when I was little, every once in a while, when Mom wasn’t looking, like when we went to the barbershop, Dad would buy me a Coke out of one of those chest-style machines, you know, the ones with the little glass bottles you turned in for deposit. It was a treat. Something fun. But don’t tell Mom.

I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD last night, and a funny thing happened: I thought about Dad and those little bottles of Coke. It seemed like a strange juxtaposition, until I thought a little more about it. And then I remembered why I would think about those times when Dad bought me a treat.

It’s getting harder these days to feel the holiday spirit on television. Gone are the days when the family gathered ‘round the Zenith to watch Charlie Brown turn Christmas into a problem, and see the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day. Oh sure, those specials still run… on a single channel on my 99 channel cable service. And the shows are so pot marked with commercials and promo inserts that cover half the screen – the technical term for these in the biz is “snipes,” because they’re supposed to jump in and out quickly. But they don’t really – that watching these beloved treasures can be more of a chore than a pleasure.

Of course, loading the Christmas specials with commercial content is nothing new. I dubbed down a broadcast of a 1974 favorite A Year Without a Santa Claus to DVD and edited out the breaks only to find the show’s total running time sans spots to be exactly 43 minutes. It’s possible the ABC Family Channel speeded up the show to make more room for ads, a common trick on many cable networks. (Ever wonder why the audio on certain shows keeps burbling like it’s under water? Digital speed adjustment.) And while it’s hard to believe, the corporate content used to be much more, shall we say, in your face. The original broadcasts of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer were sponsored by GE, complete with Santa’s elves from the show singing the commercial. I’ll always remember the tall elf selling a GE percolator. These are the things little kids remember.

At one time most Christmas specials were single sponsor events – programs whose production was underwritten by a solitary commercial sponsor in order to create a warm holiday feeling towards said sponsor via the show they sponsored. The Gas Company – remember when there was only one? – brought you How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Director Chuck Jones recalled the experience of working under a sponsor somewhat challenging, but overall a far more positive experience than dealing directly with a television network. In other words, if one of creative talents behind Bugs Bunny said “I want the animation to look good,” CBS would say, “We don’t care. Just knock it out as cheap as possible.” But if a corporate sponsor – the client! – said “We want it good,” the network kissed the Gas Company’s ass. The Gas Company put up the money for the production. They could pay for it to look like Fantasia if they wanted to.

Single sponsorship is hard to find these days. Anything aimed at kids falls under the FCC’s Children’s Television Act: a lawyer’s briar patch of arcane rules broadcasters must follow in order to prevent the poisoning of young minds when they’re not playing Grand Theft Auto on the PS-3. Basically stated, the CTA stops characters in the show from turning to the camera and saying, “Hey kids, buy my crap!” No more of Santa’s elves selling coffee pots during “Rudolph.” (Of course, the CTA does nothing about toy-based productions i.e.: Pokemon, or the creeping up of the commercial unit count on Nickelodeon. But that’s another story.)

The CTA not withstanding, sponsors find children’s television a corporate relations minefield. The original sponsor of A Charlie Brown Christmas was Coca-Cola, “and your friendly neighborhood Coca-Cola bottler.” It just wasn’t Christmas until I head Vince Guaraldi and “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” In later years McDonald’s also sponsored Peanuts specials. Nowadays these companies wouldn’t dare sponsor a children’s show for fear of being targeted as purveyors of junk food to kids.

True, children need a balanced diet. And true, kids have more choices to watch whatever whenever. I’ll admit that as a child I dreamed of a day when we had a 24-hour cartoon channel. Now we do, and it’s like having a Milky Way bar for breakfast. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

I guess the difference back in pre-Nick days, back when everybody had 3 channels and a PBS, maybe in color, was that a Christmas Special was just that. Special. Like the times when Dad bought me a Coke. A treat.