Shrek the Halls, a new Christmas special featuring that cash cow of an ogre from the big screen, has yet to be shown on TV, but ABC is already calling it an "instant classic."

Foolish me, I thought it was the audience that determines which shows are classics -- and that such calls are made only after decades of joyous viewing.

Still, as bombastic as the claim might be, it prompts the question as to what makes for a holiday TV classic -- especially this week with the arrival of wall-to-wall, prime-time Christmas programming. If it seems as if there are more holiday specials airing sooner than ever before, you can thank the writers' strike in Hollywood. As the networks run out of new episodes of scripted programs, one way they will fill the void in coming weeks is with more canned holiday programs.

Consider ABC's lineup. Tuesday night at 8, the Disney-owned network offers A Charlie Brown Christmas, the 1965 animated special from the late Charles Schulz that has come to define Christmas TV classic.

Hoping to forge a connection with another genuine classic, ABC will come back Wednesday night at 8 with Shrek the Halls, followed at 8:30 by Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

It is a similar story at all the networks and many of the cable channels.

NBC will offer Christmas in Rockefeller Center on Wednesday. And then on Saturday, the network airs the premiere of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a new program built around the famed Manhattan stage show. At least the network has thus far refrained from calling it a classic -- instant or otherwise.

"I'm always suspicious of someone telling me something is going to be a classic, because I think you can only know that over time," says Sheri Parks, associate professor of television and popular culture at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Parks wonders whether any new TV special can become a classic for children today in the same way that A Charlie Brown Christmas did for baby boomers.

"The Peanuts Christmas special is a classic because it has been around for a long time and it still has charm. But part of the way that it became a classic is through this seasonal ritual of only airing once at the holidays -- and being something very special as a result," she says.

Parks says her daughter now has the Peanuts special on DVD, and it no longer feels so memorable.

"The fact that it's there all the time almost takes the specialness away," she says. "You almost want to have to wait for it."

Just as technological change affects the way viewers relate to holiday programming, so do shifts in lifestyle, says Shirley Peroutka, associate professor of popular culture and film at Goucher College in Towson.

"For me, the defining element of the traditional holiday TV classic was this idea of the whole family watching it together," Peroutka says.

As she sees it, many of the specials dealt thematically with family and were designed for family members watching together.

"But today, everybody is watching something different on a different screen in a different room," she says. "It's hard to imagine any holiday show becoming an annual shared family experience in the way that watching White Christmas once was for some."

Paul Levinson, professor of media and popular culture at Fordham University, believes that the "standards for judging a holiday TV special are different than anything else."

To Levinson, who blogs at infiniteregress.tv, "artistic excellence" is not nearly as important as the ways in which successful holiday specials address "feelings and needs."

"I think there's a lot of loneliness that people feel around the holidays," he says. "And the best holiday specials -- whether the Charlie Brown stories, or Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or even the Andy Williams Christmas specials -- speak to that loneliness by bringing people together in front of the TV or allowing them to connect to their childhood memories of once watching Christmas shows as part of a family."

ABC's Shrek the Halls is filled with endless talk of family. After months of gruffly rejecting efforts by Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) aimed at getting Shrek in the spirit of Christmas, the ogre (Mike Myers) suddenly finds himself on the eve of the holiday desperate to fulfill the wish of his wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), "for the best Christmas ever for our family."

Only Shrek has no idea how to celebrate the day.

And, so, the entire 22 minutes (running time without commercials) is more or less a primer in how to celebrate Christmas as a family: Decorate the house, get a tree, hang the stockings -- with Daddy reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to the three baby ogres.

But just as the reading starts, Donkey, Puss in Boots, Gingerbread Man and a cast of dozens crash the intimate gathering. Now, after Shrek explodes in anger, he has to learn another lesson about the meaning of family -- mainly from Donkey and Fiona.

While the story line speaks to loneliness and celebrates community belonging, the episode ultimately feels as flat and superficial as a mass-produced holiday greeting card. There is nothing nearly as daring or deep as the exploration of existential angst in the landmark Charlie Brown special.

"In the end, maybe the most interesting thing about the Shrek special will be the way that ABC is trying to market it as an instant classic," Goucher's Peroutka says. "The marketers are trying to take away the audience's power to make its own decisions about personal holiday traditions. I'm hoping we're not yet at the point where we are willing to let the marketing departments of giant media corporations do that."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com