In Depth

Bah Humbug! TV Holiday Specials Ratings Go Flat

Where did the holiday specials viewers go, Charlie Brown?

Holiday-themed prime-time specials on the Big Three networks have mostly slipped in the ratings this year compared to last year.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Last year’s big scorer, ABC’s “Shrek the Halls,” posted a 3.3 rating among adults 18-49 on Dec. 1, compared to its 7.1 rating for its premiere airing on Nov. 28, 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research. The green ogre may have also been fresher in viewers’ minds last year, after the animated film franchise’s “Shrek the Third” was in theaters during the previous summer. The special did a 3.3 in its first repeat two weeks later.

Essentially, “Shrek” has gone flat.

On-par performances such as this, however, are some of the better results this year. Both newer and classic specials have shown signs of slippage in their telecasts this year to date. The disappointing audience numbers come as broadcast networks contend with broader viewership declines and the prospect of less television advertising next year.

Further exacerbating viewership declines are the rise in DVR usage, the availability of the specials on home video and the lack of original shows premiering during the holiday season.

ABC’s two airings of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” posted a 3.7 (Dec. 8) and a 2.9 (Dec. 16), dropping 20% and remaining flat, respectively, from two telecasts last year.

Last year’s airing of the animated classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” followed “Shrek the Halls” and maintained a sizable chunk of its lead-in with a 6.8. This year’s airing, which also followed “Shrek,” did a 3.8, dropping 44% year-over-year, yet managing to increase on its lead-in by half a point.

Holiday viewer abandonment has not only affected ABC, though the network does have a considerably larger slate of holiday programming compared to other broadcast networks.

NBC’s first telecast of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” this year posted a 1.3 on Dec. 13, down 24% from the movie’s airing Dec. 14 last year, when it posted a 1.7. Its Dec. 24, 2007, telecast did a 1.5, and NBC currently plans to air the film again on Christmas Eve.

The network’s annual presentation of “Christmas at Rockefeller Center” is one of the few holiday specials to gain from last year, posting a 10% increase in the demographic on Dec. 3 compared with Nov. 28, 2007. “Rockefeller,” unlike most of the holiday specials, features new content from the New York City tree-lighting ceremony each year.

Other holiday specials on NBC included the debut of “Little Spirit: Christmas in New York” (Dec. 10, 1.4) and “A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa” (Dec. 17, 2.4), which had no predecessors for comparison.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Success for holiday fare, usually of the family-friendly variety, can vary. Some networks choose to look at younger age groups for measurement or tout the total number of viewers. Advertisers, however, remain attentive to viewers 18-49, and during the holiday shopping period in an ailing economy, with broadcast network viewership down overall throughout the season, even Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are feeling the chill.

Speaking of which, ABC’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was down 6%, while CBS’ “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were down 4% and 18%, respectively.

“Rudolph,” fittingly, remains this year’s leader of the broadcast TV sleigh, posting a 4.2 on Dec. 3.

Where did all the broadcast TV viewers go during this time of year?

Maybe cable TV. Hallmark Channel’s Home for the Holidays, Falalala Lifetime and ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas have offered daily holiday-themed programming during the month. Speaking to the appeal of original programs, Comedy Central’s “Jeff Dunham’s Very Special Christmas Special” became the network’s most watched telecast in November.