Copyright 2003
Stephen Winzenburg
Associate Professor of Communication
Grand View College
Des Moines, Iowa

Television networks focus on non-spiritual aspects of Christmas when airing programs about the holiday. In a December 2002 analysis of over 100 non-religious television networks, Santa, Scrooge, and even little Ralphie from the movie “A Christmas Story” got as much or more TV airtime than did Jesus.

What was once celebrated as one of the most sacred holy days of the year in American society has now become represented on television as nothing more than a fantasy day where dreams come true. Of the 1,156 hours of television devoted to the theme of Christmas during the month of December:
• 90% of the shows did not include a major spiritual theme
• 7% had a religious or spiritual theme not specifically dealing with Jesus
• only 3% of the Christmas programming was devoted to Jesus.

This study monitored the program schedules of just over 100 non-religious channels in December, 2002. During the week before Christmas, a more intense analysis was made of 144 non-religious networks and 20 religious networks.

From December 1 to 17, out of about 48,000 hours of programming, only three hours on non-religious stations were devoted to Jesus, and even in most of those He was peripheral: two half-hour animated specials on the nativity, a special about Mary, and an Animal Planet special entitled “Animals of the Nativity.” From December 18 to 25, Jesus was the subject of only 35 of the 27,000 hours of television programming. So while the networks studied had 75,000 hours to fill with programming during December, they dedicated only 1156 hours (or 1.5%) to any type of Christmas programming and a mere 38 hours of that dealt with Christ. (See TABLE ONE.)

Number of hours aired
On non-religious TV networks
(out of 48,000 hours)
433 6.5 3
(27,000 hours)
722 75 35
(75,000 hours)
1,156 81.5 38

The History Channel was the surprising leader in airing the most shows with religious holiday themes, including the eight-hour mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth,” a special on the Shroud of Turin, “Who Wrote the Bible?” and “In Search of Christmas,” though some ran between “Incredible but True?” episodes dealing with Bigfoot and mermaids! The Discovery Channel aired the second-largest amount of Christian material, including “Jesus: The Complete Story” and “Quest for the True Cross.” Turner Classic Movies and Fox Movie channel aired films about Christ, such as “The Greatest Story Every Told” and “From the Manger to the Cross.”

Broadcast network television was devoid of Christianity at Christmas. Other than late-night Christmas Eve church services that were aired by some affiliates, there was no spiritual meaning attached to the holidays by the major broadcasters. While these networks claim to program for the masses, they ignored the majority of American viewers that are of Christian heritage.
Instead of Jesus, the person who received the most television attention during the holidays was Santa, with two former religious cable networks leading the way. ABC Family, which just a few years ago was owned by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, aired the most non-religious Christmas material during December. The Hallmark Channel, which started as a non-denominational “faith and values” religious network, was second in using Santa and other secular holiday programs to fill its schedule.

Non-religious networks offered many versions of Santa and his pals, including Santa’s wife, various versions of Santa’s son (including a new movie with Kelsey Grammer), the Santa Claus brothers, Santa’s elves, and a number of Santa’s reindeer, including Rudolph, Robbie, Olive, Prancer, Donner and the one that ran over grandma.

Scrooge also appeared as the subject of television shows more often than Jesus during the month, and kids singing group The Wiggles broadcast their two hour-long Christmas specials at least 13 times each during the season. Even Ralphie, the boy hoping for a BB gun in “A Christmas Story,” got as much airtime as Christ. (See TABLE TWO.)


Subject of Christmas Shows on TV, December 2002
(includes multiple airings of single shows)
Santa 59
Scrooge 32
Wiggles 26
Ralphie 19
Jesus 19
Reindeer 12
Grinch 9

Other cable channels got in the holiday mood as well. The Food Network did Christmas cooking (“Two Fat Ladies Christmas” and “Naked Chef Christmas”), HGTV showed how to decorate, BBC America had special episodes of “Changing Rooms Christmas,” the Cartoon Network had plenty of animated Christmas shows, even Country Music Television had a number of holiday music specials.

Other programming choices during December ranged from the odd to the totally inappropriate. Christmas specials included: A&E’s “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas,” featuring the mystery detective; “The Munsters Scary Little Christmas” on ABC Family; “Leprechaun’s Christmas” and “Pinnochio’s Christmas” animated specials; and “Casper’s Haunted Christmas” on USA Network. NBC’s idea of a holiday-themed show was the December 9 “Fear Factor” episode in which contestants were forced to eat reindeer testicles and rotten egg nog.

Inappropriate programming included a couple cable channels that aired satanic-themed shows during Christmas week, such as “The Devil’s Child” or “The Curse of the Poltergeist.” One pay movie network aired “Witch Hunt” and “The Witches” on December 23rd. Three networks aired “Wizard of Oz” during December, which reinforced the conclusion that the networks merely see the holidays as a time of fantasy when dreams come true. And was Bravo intentionally being sarcastic or sacrilegious by airing nine hours of “The Godfather” movies on Christmas Day?

Others tried to promote religious diversity by placing non-Christian shows during Christmas week. One movie channel focused on the Dalai Lama in the movie “Kundun” while Turner Classic Movies played Jewish-themed musical “Fiddler on the Roof” on Christmas evening, and PBS followed its one-hour special entitled “Mystery of the Three Kings” with a two-hour special on the prophet Muhammad!

This year television began airing the holiday specials much earlier than normal. Traditionally, TV has waited until after Thanksgiving to air Christmas-related shows, but the past couple years Thanksgiving weekend has been used to launch Christmas programs. This year the holiday started incredibly early, with the Disney Channel airing eight hours of Christmas shows on Halloween, October 31! The reason? The network was promoting its new in-theatres sequel to Tim Allen’s “The Santa Clause.” The original film not only aired twice on Halloween, but ran again on ABC the Sunday before Thanksgiving, on the Disney Channel at least another eight times including Thanksgiving evening, and ended up running a couple times after Christmas on Starz pay cable channel!

Home shopping network QVC heavily promoted its big Christmas shopping weekend on November 2 & 3, long before Santa was seated at the mall. By the middle of November, “Holiday Inn” (with Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”) had already been telecast before anyone had snow, HGTV was airing holiday decorating specials, and ABC had premiered its new Santa movie, starring Kelsey Grammer as “Mr. St. Nick.” By the time ABC broadcast “Jingle All the Way” and “The Santa Clause” the week before Thanksgiving, television had effectively blurred the holidays for those who like to keep their Thanksgiving and Christmas separate.

Thanksgiving week (November 21 to 28) had 38 hours of Thanksgiving-themed shows and 16 hours of Christmas shows, only one hour of which was spiritual and that was on public television. Most Thanksgiving shows dealt with food, but another example from the “What were they thinking?” school of TV programming came when The Biography Channel aired a Nazi special on Thanksgiving Day!

Not only does television start airing Christmas programs too soon, but networks fill the schedule with meaningless junk that has little to do with the true meaning of the holiday. While a couple dozen airings of “A Christmas Story” may be forcing America to accept the 1983 film as a “true yuletide classic” (according to the “Hollywood Reporter”), most of the Christmas specials are about as appetizing as stale fruitcake. “USA Today”’s Gary Levin pointed out that “Today’s holiday specials aren’t all that special”—they focus on implausible plots that are outlandish even by fantasy standards.

And while most sitcoms and dramas have “very special” Christmas episodes, few have anything to do with the real meaning of the holiday. “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” suffered from an ego condition that prevented her from getting her gifts; on “Malcolm in the Middle,” if the boys didn’t behave they wouldn’t get their presents on Christmas morning; purple dinosaur Barney was searching for a star for his Christmas tree; on “Friends,” Ross got upset at the cute Christmas card that his partner sent; lawyer Ally McBeal got in on the spirit by representing a fired newscaster who told the truth about Santa on the air; and on “The Simpsons,” Richard Gere taught little Lisa about Buddhism when she tired of her money-hungry church.

Jesus does not even have a small part in the holiday on commercial television. Instead, Christian programs have been relegated to the one or two little-seen religious channels carried by most cable systems. Now SkyAngel has almost 20 religious TV networks that are available via the Dish satellite system. These stations air almost 24 hours a day of preaching and talk shows that include Christian themes.

During the week before Christmas, these religious networks aired 67 hours of Jesus-themed Christmas specials (and, surprisingly, a few secular Santa-themed shows as well). So the 20 religious networks broadcast twice as many spiritually-based Christmas shows than did the 144 non-religious networks. Those who are disappointed that commercial television networks have abandoned Jesus at Christmastime at least have alternatives if viewers are willing to pay for the religious networks via cable or satellite.

The fact is every major broadcast network and three-fourths of the cable networks aired no prime time programming about Jesus at Christmas. They ignored the true historical meaning of the holiday and instead chose to focus on Santa, Scrooge, Ralphie, the Grinch, and even the Dalai Lama and Muhammad. The lack of outrage by Christian viewers means that either Americans are satisfied to keep their faith separate from their viewing habits or that the networks are reflecting the culture’s acceptance of Christmas as a secular holiday.


Winzenburg studies regarding television’s ignoring Jesus during the Easter season and TV’s emphasis on Satanism during Halloween are available at