Dec. 9th marked the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the Peabody- and Emmy-award-winning television special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The special contained layers of lessons and unlikely themes, touching on topics from commercialism to the biblical story of Christmas (as recited by Linus). But what the special can teach the media industry -- now four and a half decades after its premiere -- is that great content can still draw millions of viewers even though it isn't the flashiest, aluminum-tree production out there. That is a lesson that those of us dealing in the realm of archival online video should remember.
What's "Charlie Brown"'s secret? First and foremost, Charles Schulz, the writer, stuck to his artistic vision and fought to keep that vision intact. In fact, he threatened to walk off the project when a laugh track was suggested. But equally important to the special's successful longevity is an invigorated interest each year -- for 45 years now -- created by something that happens naturally: December. This puts the spotlight back on classic content of the holiday theme, and specials like "Charlie Brown" pull audiences time and again.
Television historians like me have the challenge of managing thousands of hours of online video content, and we are tasked everyday with earning eyeballs for that content. There is more incredible archived video online than one could sort through in a lifetime, so the top challenges become: How do you prioritize archived content for the inquisitive Web navigator, and how do you give your video library the newsworthiness it needs in order to be found among other, newer content? Following Schulz's example, we try to enhance existing content's history in a measured and simple way. Did you know that CBS executives initially hated the special and reluctantly scheduled it?
As "A Charlie Brown Christmas" demonstrates, themed video content does not have to be an over-the-top production in order to garner viewers. In fact, it can even be content people have viewed many times over. What the content must do is speak to the frame of mind that the audience is already in thanks to inherent awareness of an event.
Many classic holiday TV specials are already being ported to the digital realm. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was made available this year via advertiser-supported online video sites like Hulu.com and ABC.com. Thanks to digital video libraries, and cyclical pegs that rejuvenate their newsworthy value, these shows -- and hopefully more classic works that are still locked away -- will be featured for years to come.