Thursday, December 9, 1965, 8:00 PM. Nearly half of all Americans watching television on that day and time were tuned to CBS to watch a cartoon. A cartoon. In prime time. Before the day of hundreds of cable TV channels, video on demand, DVRs, online streaming through Netflix, Hulu and others. Back then Americans had three national TV networks, PBS, and in some of the bigger cities an independent station or two. For a network to devote a half hour of air time to an animated special was almost unheard of at the time.
In December 1965 I was living in north New Jersey, part of the greater New York City metro. The largest television market in the nation. We had six channels. Six. And we were among the millions who were tuned to CBS (that would have been channel 2 back in Jersey, WCBS-TV, the network’s east coast flagship station, owned and operated by the Columbia Broadcasting System).
It was the premier broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Just a week earlier executives at CBS had predicted it would also be the last broadcast for the special, the last special to feature the beloved Peanuts characters of Charles M. Schulz of any kind. That’s how much they doubted the project that Schulz and producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez had delivered. But CBS had ordered the show late, scheduled and announced its broadcast before the show was finished and had little choice but to let it air, at least that one time.
There were all sorts of perceived problems with the show. It moved too slow. It used actual children to voice the parts of children. There was no laugh track. And there was that big bit of dialogue taken directly from the Bible. Even Mendelson and Melendez weren’t too keen about that. They pressed Schulz about it and he replied, “If we don’t do it, who will?” The passage from Luke stayed in. And America loved it.
CBS would air it every year through 2000. ABC acquired it and has broadcast it every year since 2001. The 2014 airing (date and time have not yet been announced) will mark the 50th time A Charlie Brown Christmas has run. It still attracts millions of viewers every time it airs. I’ll be among them again this year, my 50th viewing of the show.
Here’s the opening scene from the show, featuring the song Christmastime Is Here. Vince Guaraldi wrote the music and he and his trio performed it. Guaraldi hadn’t written any lyrics and producer Mendelson thought it needed some to help move the scene along. So he wrote them, in about 10 minutes while sitting at his kitchen table.