A Christmas Story Live! was pretty much dead on arrival for Fox, scoring a weak 1.5 rating in viewers 18-49, with 4.5 million total viewers. Matthew Broderick was the narrator, with quite a bit of screen time, and Maya Rudolph played Ralphie’s mother. But tough competition on the other broadcast networks, and an unfamiliar take on the beloved Christmas movie, appeared to doom the special.
A Christmas Story Live! aired from 7 to 10 p.m. It featured elements of both the movie, which came out in 1983 and of course shows in a marathon starting Christmas Eve on TBS, and a musical that debuted in 2009 and came to Broadway in 2012. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who composed the original score to “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” and also worked on “Dear Evan Hansen,” composed new songs for the Fox special.
Perhaps a more straightforward adaptation of the movie would’ve worked better.
“Folks know the movie and will watch that,” said media consultant Bill Carroll. “I don’t know that most folks know the musical.”
No one from the 1983 film was involved with the Fox production.
There's been heightened interest in live entertainment programming with broadcasters as a hedge against OTT rivals. But ratings for live productions have been slipping since The Sound of Music Live jump-started the live TV trend in 2013. Airing on NBC, that did a 5.6 rating in 18-49, with 22 million total viewers.
A year ago, NBC’s Hairspray Live! did a 2.3 overnight rating. In 2015, The Wiz did a 3.4 on NBC, while in 2014, critically derided Peter Pan Live! rated a 2.4 on NBC.
Closer to the lowly number put up by A Christmas Story Live! Sunday, Fox’s live musical The Passion did a 1.6 last March.
But in January, Fox production Grease: Live bucked the trend, putting up a 4.3 rating and drawing 12.2 million total viewers.
The Sound of Music played a part in A Christmas Story Live!’s weak showing. The 1965 film aired on ABC Sunday, while a high impact football game that went down to the wire, Patriots versus Steelers, kept viewers on CBS well past Christmas Story Live!’s start. Of course, NBC had a football game coming up too on Sunday Night Football.
The Sound of Music is its own holiday tradition, notes Carroll. “A traditional audience is more likely to watch The Sound of Music (than A Christmas Story Live!),” he said.
He also believes that A Christmas Story Live! was something of an illogical fit on Fox’s Sunday prime, which usually has animated comedies—Simpsons, Family Guy—that draw young males more than they do families. The likes of Broderick, Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer and Jane Krakowski aren’t likely household names among the usual Fox Sunday crowd.
A Christmas Story Live! came from Warner Horizon Unscripted & Alternative Television. It was performed at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. Marc Platt and Adam Siegel, both veterans of Fox’s Grease: Live production, executive produced. Scott Ellis was an executive producer and oversaw stage direction. Alex Rudzinski was an executive producer and live television director.
Reviews were so so. As USA Today saw it, ‘A Christmas Story Live! Shoots Its Own Eye Out.’
Although the cast is quite appealing and the show well staged (with hardly a hiccup or blooper), it couldn't liven up the flat material. A three-hour runtime made it a slog, and the musical was overstuffed with songs, some added from the 2009 Broadway musical adapted from it. Jokes were too far apart and never seemed to land (and strangely, an unseen audience applauded for songs but didn't laugh at punchlines).
The added songs were too sugary sweet for the irreverent story, and as a whole package, it felt tonally dissonant and a little dull. The production tried to gloss over some of the more dated aspects of the narrative, set in the 1940s, with awkward results.
The New York Times didn’t like it much either:
A game cast, lively score and sturdy source material made Fox’s big holiday spectacular “A Christmas Story Live!” a pleasant enough way to pass a mid-December Sunday evening. But the presentation throughout was a letdown — like getting pink bunny pajamas for Christmas instead of a Red Ryder BB gun.
Fox, and Marc Platt, will give another live production a shot next month. Rent airs Jan. 27.
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.