Monday night's airing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” comes right around the 50th anniversary of the special's first broadcast. Naturally, ABC has turned the affair into a two-hour whirlwind of celebrities talking and singing about their love for the classic, topped off by the first of two traditional pre-Christmas airings of the actual special.
But perhaps a little celebration is in order. After screening “A Charlie Brown Christmas” for network executives in 1965, legendary TV producer Lee Mendelson was fairly certain the special, a charming little animated half-hour put together by him, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, and animator Bill Melendez, would be a failure. CBS executives weren’t too happy with the religious overtones, the weird (to them) music choices or the animation. But they decided to air it anyway, and an audience comprising nearly half the TV-owning households in America, followed by half a century’s worth of TV broadcasts, have proved Mendelson wrong.
Not bad for what was a special nudged into existence by the Coca-Cola Co. and done on a shoestring budget ($96,000 in 1965) on a shoestring timeline (six months from conception to air).
Yep: Coke. We all love to complain about ads, but “A Charlie Brown Christmas” wouldn’t exist without the good graces of the marketing folks down in Atlanta; or, more accurately, without ad agency McCann-Erickson asking Mendelson about doing a special for its clients, Coca-Cola.
Schulz knocked out the story the next day, with a little help from Mendelson, and after a nail-biting six months, the special was ready for that slightly cantankerous screening a few days out from air.
The special made CBS its home for the next three and a half decades, but left for ABC in 2001 after the Disney-owned network offered to pony up some premium Mouse House dollars. (The Coke references were stripped out after that first broadcast in 1965, since neither Coke nor McCann owned the material.)
“Charlie Brown” has been a decent investment for ABC. While live ratings just ain’t what they used to be, and nothing short of the Super Bowl will unite 45 percent of the TV-owning households in this age, the Peanuts Christmas special manages to hold on to a respectable audience amidst the December doldrums, and the extra hour of Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison afford the network another opportunity to stuff some more advertising dollars into their stockings.
"Good grief," Charlie Brown commented, regarding the excess.*
*Not really, but he totally would have.