We didn’t have a color television in my house until I was four or five years old. When the holidays came around, each night that a Christmas special was broadcast – A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus, etc. – we would make a pilgrimage to my grandparents’ house. There, we’d gather around the color TV in my great-grandmother’s room, wait that minute or so as the cathode tube sizzled and came to life (remember how they used to do that?), and then thrill as that “a special presentation” logo came on the screen. I’m far from the only person my age with such a story – before every house had a gigantic flat screen in every room, you had to make the appropriate arrangements for a special event. And in the days before cable and internet, when there were only three national networks, each animated holiday program was a special, practically sacred, event. (Heck, “special” is right there in the name.) And the networks that broadcast them at least pretended to treat them accordingly.
Contrast that with this past Friday. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the secular holiday season. (From a religious point of view, the Christmas season doesn’t start until next Sunday, December 3rd, so you’ve still got some time.) As families came home from their Black Friday shopping – which a particularly demonic series of Walmart ads, complete with Black Eyed Peas music, urged families to do beginning at 6pm on Thanksgiving Day – they were presented with a cruel choice. Each of the three major networks was presenting a different special, precisely at 8pm. Frosty the Snowman on CBS, How the Grinch Stole Christmas on NBC, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town on ABC. A family with young children eager to watch these holiday perennials would have to choose which of these three they would see this year.
Now, I do realize that viewing habits have changed since I was a child. Thanks to cable packages and streaming services, there will be innumerable chances to watch these programs. And starting with the advent of VHS cassettes way back when, and proceeding to the era of DVDs and whatever’s been invented by the time I post this, we can own our own copies of all of these, and view them whenever we want. I would have delighted in this as a child, had the technology been available at the time. So, in that regard, hooray for the progress of consumerism.
However, as you may or may not have noticed, the same capitalist system that is so good at providing consumer goods tends to falter quite a bit when it comes to providing public services. And to my mind, those long-ago broadcasts were a public service. The networks viewed them as such; I don’t remember this kind of scheduling conflict ever occurring when I was a child. (Though I seem to recall CBS having the broadcast rights to most of the specials back then, which would have made scheduling conflicts much less of a problem.) Those specials provided a common frame of reference for this large, diverse, fractious nature of ours, by which we could examine what these holidays meant to us. Let them be just another viewing option, and that impact is blunted.
No, there’s nothing like a story that only gets told once a year, and which gets us to gather around the electronic campfire with our great-grandmother, staring into the embers as the tale is told.