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Programmed response TV: If it's holiday time, networks are ready to blanket viewers in warm, fuzzy programming, which families are ready to love and look for year after year.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you expect to sit down tonight (or any night in the coming month) and watch your favorite network series as you have every week since late September, guess again. The series is probably being pre-empted for a holiday special of some kind -- or, at least, a special holiday episode.

For example, tonight CBS pre-empts the popular "Promised Land" for "Martha Stewart: Home for the Holidays," the %o homemaking maven's guide to creating a very Yuppie Christmas. It will be followed by Melissa Gilbert, Travis Tritt and Tim Matheson in "Christmas in My Hometown," a made-for-television movie about a corporate scrooge coming to a small town at Christmastime to downsize its biggest employer.

While many critics trash specials such as Stewart's as over-the-top commercialism and dismiss films such as "Christmas in My Hometown" as sentimental pap because of their predictably happy endings, these sorts of holiday specials are growing in popularity and garnering tens of millions of viewers, according to the A.C. Nielsen ratings.

One reason is their subtext of family, ritual and collective memory, analysts say.

For some baby boomer parents, there's the joy of introducing their children to the same specials they watched growing up. For viewers who find themselves away from or without family, the specials can offer the feeling of being part of a larger community -- members of an extended family.

"Certainly, in the last generation, there's a whole set of Christmas specials -- such as 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' and 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' -- that are as much a part of the holiday rituals as the food and the decorations. I think, in many households, watching them is the equivalent of going to hear Handel's 'Messiah,' " says Sheri Parks, an associate dean and associate professor at the University of Maryland College Park who specializes in television and families.

Shirley Peroutka, an associate professor and the director of Goucher College's communications program, agrees: "Christmas is an important time of ritual for many people in this country, and more and more television has started to fulfill the need for ritual. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing at all in the case of some holiday programming.

Seasonal chestnuts

There are different categories of Christmas programs, and delineations need to be made. Parks and Peroutka are talking about two of the three main programming categories -- evergreens and family specials.

Evergreens are programs that have been airing every holiday season for years. They can be animated children's specials such as "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" or feature films such as "Holiday Inn" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

What's important are their annual repetition and the audience's expectation of it. That's why it was such big news when "It's a Wonderful Life" went out of public domain last year and suddenly stopped airing every hour on the hour during the holiday season.

NBC, which purchased the rights, will show it on Dec. 21 in this the film's 50th anniversary. Last year's showing was one of the highest-rated events of the season despite the fact that millions already own the videocassette (600,000 videos of the film are sold annually).

"Just last weekend, I sat and watched my older brother as he watched 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' with this look of joy -- that's the word -- on his face: Christmas had begun," Parks says.

"And for my husband, it's the same with 'It's a Wonderful Life.' When it came out of the public domain and stopped running every hour, I had to get him a video, because it's not Christmas if he doesn't see 'It's a Wonderful Life' several times. We'll also watch it as a family [on NBC] this year," Parks adds.

Peroutka says it's the same with her family and "Holiday Inn."

"My family and I have developed our set of TV rituals. Every year, we look forward to watching 'Holiday Inn.' We don't go out and rent the tape, we wait for it to come on television and then gather together as a family around the television," Peroutka says, using the television-as-hearth metaphor that Parks also uses to describe the experience.

And, lest you think such analysis is limited to academics, Hollywood producer Jimmy Hawkins -- who played George Bailey's son in "It's a Wonderful Life" -- says, "I think there is added pleasure for many people in seeing the film on television, because of the sharing with family and the sense of ritual involved. I think people really enjoyed the repetition when it played over and over, along with the fact that they could share it with their children."

Hollywood is aware of what's going on among the generations parent-to-child. Parks says you can see it in new animated specials that are made to look old-fashioned, such as "The Story of Santa Claus," with voices by Ed Asner and Betty White, which aired earlier this month.

"I think this year the networks are doing a good job of capturing the spirit of the old specials and bringing back the nostalgia of the baby boomers and allowing them to reintroduce images from their childhood to their children," Parks says.

Family for all

While family clearly plays an important role in many evergreens, it is at the very core of those programs that come under the heading of "family specials." These are the programs in which celebrities invite viewers into their homes (in some more or less artificial meaning of that word) to share an hour or so with their families (also in some more or less artificial meaning of that word).

"Kathie Lee: Just in Time for Christmas," which airs tomorrow night on CBS, is now in its third year -- with Kathie Lee Gifford inviting us to her house to share Christmas with hubby Frank and their kids, Cody and Cassidy, as well as such musical "friends" as Amy Grant and Manhattan Transfer. The range of such specials goes from Martha Stewart, who actually only allows us inside her barn tonight while using nieces and guests like Miss Piggy as her "family," to "An Opryland Christmas," which CBS calls a "musical celebration of Nashville's holiday traditions with the family of country music performers."

However, fewer family specials are airing than in the past, perhaps, because we are more cynical about celebrities these days -- due in part to television and other media radically altering our notions of public and private. But that's television-as-culture.

Two hours of nostalgia

In terms of television-as-business, there is a more measureable reason for fewer family Christmas specials: the rise of made-for-television holiday movies such as "Christmas in My Hometown."

The better Christmas television movies tap into collective memory at a number of levels using images and celebrities that many of us associate with warm, nostalgic feelings. And recently, they've been among the highest-quality television films made, according to Beth Polson, winner of three Emmys and executive producer of last year's acclaimed "The Christmas Box."

"Christmas is the one opportunity that a producer who wants to an important family film with a message can do it, because the networks don't believe this idea that people want quality," Polson says.

"So, somehow they take off their usual network demeanor at Christmastime and say, 'Oh, it's Christmas, so you can do this quality film.' You get much better quality around Christmas, because the rest of the year, the networks are chasing that tabloid 'National Enquirer' story," Polson adds.

The critical and ratings success of Polson's film version of "The Christmas Box" -- based on Richard Paul Evans pop phenomenon of a book -- is itself in part responsible for the increase in this year's made-for-television holiday films. Success always means imitation in Hollywood.

The cream of this year's crop is Polson's "Timepiece," which airs Dec. 22 on CBS. It's a prequel to "The Christmas Box" and it, too, is based on an Evans book. The cast includes James Earl Jones, Ellen Burstyn and Kevin Kilner, with Richard Thomas reprising his role as Evans.

Yes, there are angels and Christmas trees, but there is nothing sappy about this drama of faith, friendship, forgiveness, racism and a child's death. It is one of the smartest, finest and most touching made-for-television films you will see all year.

But even middle-range Christmas films are often made with enough intelligence and care to prove irresistible in their emotional appeal and hopeful messages.

"Christmas in My Hometown," for example, ends with Christmas trees, angels and a big kiss between Melissa Gilbert and Tim Matheson in the softly falling snow outside a small-town community center as carols fill the air. Yes, it's schmaltzy, but running alongside the holiday romance is a portrayal of corporate downsizing as the antithesis of what we like to think of as the traditional American values of hard work and fair play. That's pretty heavy sociological stuff for a holiday flick, and it is handled rather well.

By casting Gilbert in the role of a plucky single mom who's fighting Yuppie Matheson's attempts to downsize the factory that employs her, the producers cleverly tap the reservoir of audience affection for her as Laura Ingalls Wilder on "Little House on the Prairie." As a result, we are on Gilbert's side from her first moment onscreen and share in her double victory symbolized by the kiss.

The care in casting extends to a supporting role for country singer Travis Tritt, who brings a music video persona as champion of the working man to this film, which is as much a celebration of the American worker as it is a holiday romance.

Ultimately, the most successful made-for-television Christmas movies, like "The Christmas Box," will move into the category of evergreens. And, like the box in the title, they will be passed down from one generation to the next as parents watch with children and try to share their joy.

This is as good a definition of tradition as any. And those who are troubled by the inclusion of Martha Stewart and Kathie Lee Gifford on one end of the cultural process can feel good about made-for-television films like "The Christmas Box" and Dr. Seuss specials on the other.

As Goucher's Peroutka puts it, "Holiday programs can be heart-warming, they can make us feel good and they can make feel as if we're part of a larger community, an extended family. the family of television."

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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