When Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer flew onto screens 50 years ago, the stop-motion-animated musical did more than charm: It changed how we watch TV at Christmastime.
"Rudolph was indeed the granddaddy of the holiday TV special," says Walter J. Podrazik, coauthor of Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television.
Before Rudolph, holiday TV meant a Yuletide-themed episode of a scripted show, like I Love Lucy. Or, it meant the occasional special event, like Amahl and the Night Visitors, a made-for-TV Nativity opera that NBC staged a handful of times in the 1950s and 1960s. Or, for a time, it meant Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, a retelling of the Charles Dickens tale through its title character's myopic point of view that premiered on NBC in 1962 as TV's first major animated holiday special, but fell off the network map only a handful of years later.
Most commonly, holiday TV meant variety specials from variety stars, like the bundled-up Andy Williams toasting marshmallows on a soundstage or Bing Crosby popping up to croon "White Christmas."
What holiday TV didn't mean was A Charlie Brown Christmas. Or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Or any number of shows that are now holiday rituals, including It's a Wonderful Life, the 1946 James Stewart film favorite that wouldn't become ubiquitous Yuletide fare until copyright issues in the 1970s and 1980s made it fair game for TV stations everywhere.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which CBS will air once again Tuesday night (and is also available on a 50th anniversary DVD), was the first holiday TV special to be reliably aired on a mass scale season in and season out. It taught us to think of TV-watching as a Christmas custom alongside stocking-hanging and tree-decorating. According to Rick Goldschmidt, an author who has written extensively on the company that made Rudolph, Rankin/Bass Productions didn't have ambitions of creating what would become TV's longest-running special, Christmas-themed or otherwise.
"It was supposed to air two times for NBC on The General Electric Fantasy Hour to promote [G.E.'s] housewares goods," says Goldschmidt, whose books include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic. "Beyond the first few years, [the producers] didn't know it would have the lasting power it has had."
Still, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, the namesakes of their company, arrived at Rudolph's Dec. 6, 1964, premiere date well-prepared. They'd based their special on a well-known, beloved character that previously had been the star of a best-selling book and a hit song (as well as the subject of a 1940s Max Fleischer short film). They'd spent a year and $500,000, a relative fortune for the time, on the production. And in an era when voice actors typically were famous to ears only, they snagged Burl Ives, an Oscar-winning actor and folk-singing star, to narrate their production and appear in puppet form as the jovial Sam the Snowman.
The result was instant, staggering success. Airing on NBC on a Sunday afternoon at 5:30, opposite an NFL football game on the East Coast, Rudolph scored a 55 share, Nielsen Media Research's way of saying 55 percent of all the TV sets in use on that day and at that time were tuned to the hour-long show.
Four months later, in April 1965, Coca-Cola decided it wanted to be in the Christmas special business, too, and its execs reached out to Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. A Charlie Brown Christmas was on the air that holiday season. In 1966, How the Grinch Stole Christmas followed (its message of anti-materialism originally sponsored by, of all groups, the Foundation for Commercial Banks). "Everyone wanted the success of Rudolph, and it paved the way for Charlie Brown Christmas and Grinch," Goldschmidt says. "But more so, it paved the way for more Rankin/Bass specials, and they were able to corner that holiday market."
Indeed, in the first decade following Rudolph's arrival, Rankin/Bass produced The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (1970), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) and more. Like Rudolph, Frosty remains a broadcast-network perennial to this day.
Overall, there's now a seemingly endless amount of TV specials and TV movies to stock all-Christmas, all-the-time programming blocks. Rudolph, however, still stands alone.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on CBS.