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Lost in Translation: Why Doesn’t US TV Treat Christmas Like The UK?

It’s strange to admit, but one of the things that I miss most about not living in the UK anymore is British Christmas television. There’s something about the way that the networks there really push the boat out that I find myself nostalgic for after a decade in the US, and it’s not just because the Yule Log does nothing for me.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the Christmas Day line-up for BBC One features special Christmas episodes of not only Doctor Who, but also period drama (and, happily, PBS hit) Call The Midwife, long-running soap opera Eastenders and sitcom The Royle Family; ITV, the channel’s biggest competitor, fights back with special Christmas episodes of its own long-running soap Coronation Street and (fellow PBS hit) Downton Abbey, while other channels go for either festive super-sized editions of their own biggest shows (BBC Two has a Top Gear special, for example) or big movies (Channel Four is showing the first Lord of The Rings). There’s a sense that Christmas Day – or, really, Christmas night – is the night to go all-out for and try to give people the best of what’s on offer in some kind of metaphorical gift-giving kind of a way.

In contrast, the big four networks in the US are either going with re-runs or sports on December 25. I know, I know; I should, in theory, be in favor of this. Crappier television means that there’s less reason to watch, and more reason to spend time with loved ones and that’s a good thing and all, and yet… Well, good television was part of the Christmas deal for me, growing up; you’d ignore the television during the day, when there were presents and family and food to deal with – You’d eat dinner starting at some obscenely early point of the day, around 3, but it would last for hours – and then, by the time all the good shows started, you would sit around, silent and full of food, digesting and watching the box in a communal, pleasant, coma that entertains and allows you to recover for a couple of hours before a second round of socializing.

(Warning: The above may just have been my experience.)

I can understand, to some extent, why Christmas Day is a wasteland for American broadcasters; the television culture here is different and the lack of tradition for TV viewing likely means a lower turn-out no matter what the programming would be, which would translate into lower ad buys, which would translate into less incentive for programmers to waste new material, and so on and so on in a circular fashion that eats its own tail and ends up with dull holiday television for all. I still miss the idea of Christmas Day having “destination” shows, nonetheless; the cable channels are beginning to investigate the possibility with BBC America’s Doctor Who scheduling and this year’s final Leverage (which may be the final episode ever, and therefore gets accidental “event” status), but I can’t help but feel there’s a missed opportunity here. I turn to you, dear readers: If there was good new television on Christmas Day, do you think that you’d tune in? Or would you be more likely to TiVo it and watch it when everyone else has gone home?


  • Brenticles

    Honestly, the lack of Christmas television has more to do with the ultra PC culture of Hollywood rather than a lack of interest by viewers.  By that, Christmas is too close to Christian which may be seen by someone somewhere as espousing a religion which could possibly offend someone.  It’s doubly damning if that special episode isn’t sufficiently multi-cultural as to mention Hanukkah, Kwanza, or Ramadan. 
    There used to be Christmas Specials on American TV, but over the years they became Holiday Specials.  They became bland shows of general good cheer and happy feelings without any connection to the source of that holiday celebration.  They are so devoid of actual connection to the season they are no fun to watch…so people don’t. 
    I’ve seen the Dr. Who Christmas Specials and while the show certainly didn’t preach anything, they did have people saying Merry Christmas and there were carols being sung in the background.  I honestly believe that’s a step too for America’s entertainment industry. 

  • Thomas Wrobel

    Almost every major US (non drama) show does have Christmas themed episodes, they just arnt normally shown on the day, but rather the weeks before.
    (if your lucky, if your unlucky its months off due to the generally useless scheduling ability of the us networks). Overall its more time-displaced then missing.Also, a large number of those uk specials are soaps, which even when “special” are still quick/cheap tv to produce.Give me “The Neighbors” Christmas special that was on Dec5th over a “Neighbors” Christmas special on the 25th any day.  :P

  • Lyle

    Honestly, I never watch television when it’s on anymore. Everything is DVRed to watch later so I can fast forward past those pesky commercials. True, this is also because I work an afternoon shift so that I cannot watch shows at night when they are on, but most of my friends are the same way, and have more traditional work schedules.
    Still, I have seen a lot of Christmas episodes just in the last week. I have not noticed any of them being watered down by supposive PC police or the great liberal conspiracy that so many are fond of believing in.

  • realist

    You’ve been watching too much Fox News

  • Ironicsword

    as a uk resiedent i can tell you that youre explanation of a english chritmas is pretty much spot on  
    just incase people where wondering.

  • Bluedevil2002

    Maybe because life isn’t build around a TV box?

  • Demoncat4

    the reason the u.s seems to go out on sports shows for xmas is because they know not only can they get big bucks for ads but that is what some in the u.s have proven they will watch long time tradition . though some like the halmark show christmas stuff though mostly movies. other wise to networks execs christmas day is a wasteland  and will proably never be done like british tv

  • Richard Casey

    Yeah, most US shows do have Christmas episodes as well as New years. The UK thing is questionable these days: there’s Doctor Who and the christmas episodes of the soaps, but other than that, there’s very little else worth watching these days. 

  • DF2506

    I love that BBC America is showing the Doctor Who Christmas Special on CHRISTMAS DAY! I remember when Sci-fi had the show, briefly, we had to wait awhile to see the Christmas specials…

    I do wish networks in the U.S. would have Christmas specials on Christmas. It was nice seeing the Vegas & Hawaii-Five 0 Christmas episodes but it would have been better seeing them on Christmas Day… (Vegas actually airs normally on Tuesdays…so…).
    Ya, I’m starting to wish our networks treated Christmas like the U.K. does too.

  • kj011

    First, I think you miss what you grew up with, as we all do. And second, I personally would love it if Christmas eve and day were packed with new TV episodes so I could spend the day watching them. But as for why they don’t do it, I think you have it backwards – it’s all about economics, like everything else. They aren’t withholding shows so you *have* to spend time with your family, nor is it that they’re afraid of celebrating Christmas, as one commenter suggested. The fact is that they’re showing reruns because they feel that fewer people will be watching TV at these times, and everything is about ratings.