We’re Being Privatized, Charlie Brown

‘Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy’

Image: Joshua N. Miller

I don’t remember when I started watching the Peanuts specials, only how quickly they became a staple for the holidays. I’d pester my parents to either cart me off to my grandparent’s house or let me stay up the extra hour while I was still in elementary school, save for Thanksgiving, when the special usually airs on the day of. Even now, one of the holiday traditions that I maintain and hope to one day share with my own kids is the yearly viewing of the first Peanuts holiday special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s one of the few Christmas specials that holds a lasting appeal for me, with enough hijinks to capture my attention as a child, along with a genuine message that I finally understood as an adult.

With its cast of elementary school characters, it’s easy to see how A Charlie Brown Christmas might be thoughtlessly labeled as a story for children, and oftentimes the Peanuts programs that followed have leaned away from the social commentary that defined the special. But the program’s opening lines, spoken once Vince Guaraldi’s classic theme dies down and the camera rests on Charlie Brown and Linus leaning against a bridge, resonate because of the gravity attached to them: “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

Today, Charles Schultz’s original comic strips don’t always land with the same humor that defines more contemporary comics like Calvin and Hobbes. On the contrary, Peanuts’ characters were more often defined by the philosophical dilemmas that arose in their daily lives, like trying to write the next great novel or finding ways to appeal to their seasonal deities (some more fantastic than others). But surely even casual viewers might agree that this is a fairly loaded sentiment to hear from a character who’s supposed to be eight years old, and in a children’s Christmas special at that. More importantly, it’s an issue that isn’t cleared up anytime soon, as Charlie Brown spends the majority of the special in awe of the ways his companions express their holiday cheer, whether it comes in the form of his sister, Sally, penning a letter to Santa asking for money; his therapist and Linus’ sister, Lucy, ruminating on her Christmas wish for real estate; or his own dog Snoopy’s effort to win the top prize in a lights-and-display contest. Said desires culminate in the plotting of their school’s Christmas play, of which he’s made director in an effort to get him out of his slump; however, when his vision for the play comes into conflict with the group’s desires, it mainly serves to worsen his problem.

A comic strip that was catapulted into the animation medium based on the strength of a special that was so unapologetically anti-capitalist is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.

What became clear for me was that throughout Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas, he subverts conformity to a capitalist norm, a trend that boils down all the way to his selection of a Christmas tree, as he chooses one that is better described as a twig. If nothing else, the tree certainly managed to persevere, save for the pine needles that scattered whenever it moved. But Charlie Brown’s faith in it, like other encounters throughout the program, leaves him subject to the scrutiny of his friends, who don’t hesitate to dogpile him when he presents his dogged tree as the main decor for their production instead of one of the more fragrant, metal, and hollow trees that crowded the lot he’d just visited.

As a native New Yorker, I’ve often found reprieve in the seasonal aesthetic, but the news broadcasts of Black Friday chaos and lines of people flooding out of department stores, waiting to buy new presents, has made the realities that define the season abundantly clear. For me, it makes the anticipation of counting down the days to Christmas dissipate all the more quickly once the presents under the tree have disappeared. I’ve sympathized with Charlie Brown’s plight, struggling to find joy in a holiday whose celebration is more often marked by a modern capitalist agenda than the communalistic values of the man it’s named for, and with time I’ve found more solace in the special’s ending, in which the cast members come together to bring Charlie’s seemingly fallen tree back to life and sing carols as the credits roll. For me, it acknowledges the feelings that come with age, when a person learns to value giving gifts more than they do receiving them.

All of which goes to say that it’s incredibly ironic that a comic strip that was catapulted into the animation medium based on the strength of a special that was so unapologetically anti-capitalist is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+. The news was relatively sudden when it was announced on the Peanuts Twitter account on October 20, juxtaposed against other users starting to ask when It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown would air in the next few weeks.

The Verge confirmed that not only the Halloween special but also the Christmas special and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving would stream exclusively on Apple TV+, breaking a decades-long record in which the program aired annually on ABC.

Faithful fans didn’t hesitate to voice their disappointment with the news, speaking of holiday traditions now upended by the fact that you may only be able to enjoy these specials if you own an Apple product. Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t too stunned—rather, I was more surprised that I hadn’t seen the pieces moving into place sooner. For the past year or two, Apple has put forth substantial stakes in the Peanuts property, just last year releasing the TV show Snoopy in Space and announcing on October 2 the upcoming debut of The Snoopy Show in February 2021. The biggest warning sign that I’d noted in advance was Apple’s removal of the Peanuts Specials show that had been on iTunes for years, something I finally tried to buy this summer, only to find that it had been removed from iTunes, as well as from Amazon Prime Video, along with other popular Peanuts holiday specials.

What general audiences should be asking themselves is which properties will be claimed next?

Realistically, there’s a fair chance that general television audiences, especially older viewers, won’t have to worry about this exclusive streaming situation, because they can either find an alternative option online (legal or not) or watch with a friend or family member who owns an Apple product. Furthermore, there’s a solid base of people who simply don’t care about Charlie Brown and will proceed to watch any other holiday specials they enjoy, if any at all. The question that most likely rang through their head as they learned of this news is “What does that have to do with me?” But I’d suggest that they change their framework when considering the issue, because Apple almost certainly wasn’t thinking of them when they made these specials exclusive to its platform.

Considering the initial outcry that came with the announcement, I’d be surprised to hear that Apple’s PR team hadn’t expected the backlash they evoked from fans. But realistically, Apple has a history of making decisions against the wishes of its consumer base, which is justified by the fact that consumers continue to purchase the company’s products. And if the removal of the iPhone’s headphone jack or the home button wasn’t enough to steer people away from Apple, I can hardly see how Apple making some of the Peanuts specials exclusive to its platform will deter its consumers.

General television audiences should not consider themselves the priority when it comes to working out the rationale behind this decision. After all, with the revenue Apple earns based on sales of its products, it’s likely that anything short of a boycott of said products will encourage the company to relinquish the rights it holds to the property. No, what these audiences should be more concerned with is what kind of message this sends to Apple’s streaming competitors. Even if general audiences have no interest in the Peanuts franchise, they can’t deny Charlie Brown’s relevance as a pop culture icon, even now in 2020. If you watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, you’re going to see his balloon, and just five years ago, the release of The Peanuts Movie, which grossed more than $200 million with an $80 million budget, most likely primed a whole new generation of viewers to be invested in the misadventures of Schultz’s characters. So, rather than thinking themselves relevant to Apple’s executive decision, what general audiences should be asking themselves is which properties will be claimed next?

After the Walt Disney Company’s sweeping and expensive decision to buy numerous properties from 20th Century Fox, would consumers really consider it above the company to make the Home Alone franchise, along with the upcoming reboot Disney has in the works, exclusive to Disney+? The advent of streaming platforms has demanded a critical look at how major companies will seek to strong-arm consumers into buying their products, and regardless of how sinister some may find the gesture, Apple preventing a holiday tradition from airing on a public broadcast is the perfect way for the company to steer more people toward its devices. And if Apple is bold enough to think it can make a profit by privatizing such a publicly recognized character like Charlie Brown, rival companies may proceed to make their own plans to ensure that consumers are spending the holidays on their respective platforms as well. All of which goes to say that you shouldn’t be too surprised if you end up finding Frosty the Snowman tucked behind Amazon Prime Video’s paywall or Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer at Netflix. Because, really, what’s preventing them from being purchased other than a syndication contract that’s bound to expire or possibly be bought out? And if it so happens that we become acclimated to seeing our favorite holiday specials behind a paywall, we should expect to see major shifts regarding how these companies will mount stakes to properties that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on normal television.

Of course, we can watch it all outside of television and streaming services. As a matter of fact, the day after this news was announced, I visited different online retailers to check the inventory status of their Peanuts DVDs and found that the non-4K formats of the Peanuts Holiday Collection, which contains the Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas specials, were all sold out. While a few copies of the individual specials are still available, the further you get from the Christmas special, the more you’ll find copies in short supply. Once again, I must note the irony that the Peanuts Holiday Collection that Apple explicitly said it would be streaming throughout the end of the year is the same one selling out less than a week after this news was announced.

I should be overjoyed by this decision, because now I finally have the Peanuts specials at my fingertips whenever I want to watch them. But there’s something sacred about watching these specials live on ABC every year that I can’t quite put into words. There’s a reason why every year, without fail, you can find a news article online instructing you on when you can expect to see that season’s Charlie Brown special. Is it nostalgia? Absolutely. But it’s also the quiet acknowledgement that somewhere else, whether it’s at your neighbor’s house next door or at a stranger’s place the next town over, someone is huddled up watching the same program you are, humming along to the holiday themes that we’ve cherished since we were kids. And in a year when a pandemic has threatened to keep us all apart, this decision only serves to widen the distance between us and welcome other parties to do the same.

Joshua Miller is writing about pop culture and literature. He’s also pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in English and Africana Studies at Goucher College.

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