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February 11, 2008

Coke & Charlie Brown – Part 2

Last week, I started telling you the story of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and how the special would not have aired without Coca-Cola. (If you missed Part 1, click here.) A popular Big Game ad featured the perennial “loser,” but this time let Charlie Brown be the victor. (The image below is from that winning moment.)

Its_mine_part2 When we left off, it was 1965 and the idea of a Christmas special had been quickly pulled together for a proposal to Coke. Here’s the rest of the story:

Lee Mendelson (producer of the special), Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, Coca-Cola and CBS-TV agreed on a half-hour Charlie Brown Christmas special, even though most TV specials were a full hour. There were other qualities of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that set it apart from others: The team agreed to use the voices of real children, instead of adults pretending to be kids (which was common at the time). And Schulz announced the show would contain one whole minute of the character Linus reading from the Bible. This was considered highly unusual in an entertainment show, but Schulz prevailed.

Bill Melendez had to do the animation – more than 30,000 cells – in less than three months. Each cell had to be inked and painted separately. The show was finished just a week before the scheduled broadcast date.

To promote “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Schulz held telephone interviews with editors of television columns for 25 prominent newspapers. Schulz also sent personal letters to TV editors of many other newspapers and to promotion managers at stations planning to carry the show.

To announce the show to viewers, CBS stations used a color slide of an original Schulz drawing, and many also used an audio-tape of Schulz talking about the show. And Coke helped promote the special by providing executives of more than 800 key food stores with copies of a promotional booklet emphasizing the importance of the show and Christmas promotions for Coca-Cola.

On December 9, 1965, millions of readers saw their favorite “Peanuts” characters come to life on TV for the first time. (Holiday ideas commercials for Coke were aired during intermissions, since we were a sponsor!)

The day for Charlie Brown’s TV debut had finally arrived – and the program drew unprecedented response. According to the ratings, almost half of the TV sets turned on that evening were tuned to the Peanuts special. An estimated 36 million people enjoyed the program, and it was No. 1 for the time period. And people had worried the Peanuts wouldn’t “translate” to TV!

The response of critics and viewers of all ages was overwhelmingly favorable. Letters from thousands of people poured into CBS TV stations, Coca-Cola bottling plants, The Coca-Cola Company and the home of Charles Schulz. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” won the coveted Emmy and Peabody awards as the best children’s and youth program of the year.

And viewers continued to enjoy the show – even as it was rerun year after year (sponsored by Coca-Cola, of course). The third repeat of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in 1968, for example, earned a 44% share of audience and had nearly 7 million more viewers than the original 1965 telecast.

The success of the Christmas show led to other “Peanuts” television specials, including “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown,” supported by Coca-Cola. And the original documentary about Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown that Mendelson had created – the one no one had wanted in the beginning – was updated and televised under Coca-Cola sponsorship in 1969. That show also was a success, and was seen by more than 35 million people.

I can’t imagine the holidays without the Peanuts special. Though I wasn’t working at Coke when the decision was made to sponsor the show, my family and I are really glad Coke did it!

Check back next week and I’ll post some of the letters Coke received about the show.