Yule Log

yule log

‘The Yule Log‘ is a TV program which is broadcast traditionally on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, originally by NYC television station WPIX but now by many other Tribune Company-owned television stations, including WGN America. A radio simulcast of the musical portion was broadcast by associated station WPIX-FM (now WFAN-FM) until 1988. The program, which has been two to four hours in duration (without commercial interruption), is a film loop of a yule log burning in a fireplace, with a traditional soundtrack of classic Christmas music.

The concept was created in 1966 by Fred M. Thrower, President and CEO of WPIX, Inc. Inspired by an animated Coca-Cola commercial a year earlier that showed Santa Claus at a fireplace, he envisioned this program as a televised Christmas gift to New Yorkers who lived in apartments and homes without fireplaces. This also provided time for employees of the television station to stay home with their families, instead of working for the usual morning news program.

The original program was filmed at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, at the time. An estimated US $4,000 of advertising (along with a roller derby telecast that night) was canceled on Christmas Eve for the show’s inaugural airing. Thrower, and WPIX-FM programming director Charlie Whittaker selected the music, based largely on the easy listening format the radio station had at that time, with the likes of Percy Faith (whose rendition of ‘Joy to the World’ is played at the beginning and the end of the telecast), Nat King Cole, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Mantovani, and the Ray Conniff Singers. During the filming, the producers removed a protective fire grate so that the blaze could be seen better; a stray spark damaged a nearby antique rug valued at $4,000.

The program was both a critical and ratings success, and by popular demand, it was rebroadcast for 23 consecutive years, beginning in 1967. However, by 1969 it was already apparent that the original 16mm film was quickly deteriorating from wear. (In addition, the original loop was only seventeen seconds long, resulting in a visibly jerky and artificial appearance.) Station producer William Cooper, a future recipient of a Peabody Award, again asked to film the loop at Gracie Mansion; however, the mayor’s office refused permission. So in 1970, WPIX found a fireplace with similar andirons at a residence in California and filmed a burning log on 35mm film there on a hot August day. This version’s loop is approximately six minutes and three seconds.

Rising costs prompted a new WPIX general manager, Michael Eigner, to cancel it in 1990 — the same year that director Whit Stillman included a scene of a New Yorker viewing the Log in his movie ‘Metropolitan.’ Despite hundreds of protesting letters, the program was not broadcast. Beginning in 1997, WPIX offered various versions of ‘The Yule Log’ on the Internet. In 2000, Yule Log fan Joseph Malzone of Totowa, New Jersey created a website named ‘Bring Back The Log,’ and petitioned station management to broadcast show again. In December 2001, WPIX VP/General Manager Betty Ellen Berlamino announced on WPLJ radio that the special would return after eleven years. Berlamino explained that people wanted ‘comfort food TV’ as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The digitally restored program was the most-watched television program in the metropolitan New York area for Christmas Day of that year and has been broadcast annually since.

Program Director Julie O’Neil found the original master film of the 1970 fireplace in WPIX’s film archives in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The master film was misfiled in a ‘Honeymooners’ film can marked with the episode title ‘A Dog’s Life,’ which resulted in a 2006 40th anniversary special about the Log named ‘A Log’s Life.’ In 2009, a fourth hour featuring 22 new songs and seven new artists was added to the program.

In 2003, Tribune Broadcasting, parent company of WPIX, announced that in addition to being broadcast in New York City, The Yule Log would be broadcast in additional U.S. television markets on other Tribune-owned television stations, and would also be broadcast by high definition television that year as well. The program made its ‘national’ debut in 2004 on Chicago’s WGN-TV and its sibling station, now known as WGN America. However, in 2008 the stations did their own version, with holiday themed old-time radio programs in the background instead of music. This was abandoned after one year, and the original WPIX version was used in 2009.

Other stations (and cable channels) have spawned imitations. Fellow Tribune station WDCW (then known as WBDC) in Washington, DC has done their own version, filming a log burning at Colonial Williamsburg. Beginning in 2003, Jason Patton, an executive at INHD (the now-defunct MOJO HD) was inspired as a youth by WPIX’s ‘Yule Log to produce his own version, which broadcasts every Christmas via ‘Movies On Demand.’ Broadcasters as diverse as Oregon Public Broadcasting, the MSG Network (as well as its former competitor, the Empire Sports Network) and the CHUM Television group in Canada have also borrowed the concept. PBS Kids ‘Sprout’ offers a twelve hour loop called ‘Goodnight of Sweet Dreams’ on Christmas Eve, which features scenes of sleeping characters from the network’s programming set to soft music to soothe children to sleep before the arrival of Santa Claus. QVC also airs a Yule Log every year on December 25 (the network’s only non-broadcasting day).

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