The Legacy of "A Christmas Story"

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Ralphie has to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that a Red Ryder B.B. gun really is the perfect gift for the 1940s
Photo Credit: MGM/UA Entertainment Company
December 21st, 2012

The Legacy of "A Christmas Story"

"A Christmas Story" is one of the most iconic holiday films all time. Even those who have never seen the film before know the basic premise. Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but his parents make it clear that he will never get one. He tries to ask multiple family members for the gun, and each one tells him that the guns can put people's eyes out. The film also has some subplots that deal with his father receiving a leg lamp, the family enjoying Chinese food on Christmas Day, and Ralphie's pink bunny pajamas that an aunt gives him for Christmas.

While many people love and enjoy the film, few realize that it wasn't originally a huge success. The studio released the film in theaters just before Thanksgiving, and it grossed $2 million by the end of the week. Several well-known critics panned the film including Vincent Canby, who wrote a scathing review in the "New York Times." Even Roger Ebert downplayed the film, claiming that holiday films were never commercially successful.

Those critics had to eat their words, though, because the film eventually grossed more than $19 million at the box office, and it was one of the only holiday films that played in theaters after the holiday season ended. The film also gained some success on the video market, becoming a popular rental in subsequent years. The American Film Institute nominated the film for its lists of the top 100 laughs, top 100 movie quotes, and the top 100 movies of all time.

The cable channel HBO made a name for itself during the 1980s by showing recent video releases. After airing the film in 1985, the company noticed that fans tuned in for the broadcast, which led to additional showings over the next few years. Superstation WGN and Superstation WTBS also broadcasted the film during the 1980s, and both FOX and TBS ran the film during the holiday season.

Ted Turner's Turner Entertainment Co. purchased the rights to the MGM library in the 1990s. It gained control over all films produced by the company prior to 1986, including "A Christmas Story." Time Warner later acquired that company, giving it the sole rights to broadcast the film on television. The company began running the film on its stations TCM, TBS, and TNT in the mid-1980s. In 1995, the company ran the film six times, and it ran it eight times the following year.

Time Warner quickly noticed the ratings increasing during airings of the film, and the company decided to do something a little different the next year. In 1997, the company launched the "24 Hours of 'A Christmas Story,'" which led to the film playing continuously from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day. The film played twelve times on TNT, and it continued running the marathon for several years. Time Warner switched the marathon to TBS starting in 2004, and the station runs the film several times throughout the holiday season in addition to the marathon.

More than 38 million people watched a portion of the marathon in 2002, and the number grew to more than 45 million in 2005 and 2006. The network also claims that more than 4 million people watched the entire film on Christmas Eve of 2008, making it the most watched program on the channel. The highest number of viewers flipped to the station in 2008 when more than 54 million people watched the film. Time Warner broadcast the film more than 250 times over the years, and it remains a success every year.

The marathon of "A Christmas Story" is so successful that in 2009, the airing actually had more viewers than major networks like NBC and CBS. Every year that the marathon airs, the ratings slightly increase, making it clear that fans still appreciate the film. Other networks tried to capitalize on that success by running holiday film marathons or showing classic films, but none of those marathons beat the success of "A Christmas Story."

More than twenty years after its original release, the film continues gaining fans. Fans can now purchase Christmas ornaments, stockings, and dozens of other items including replicas of the leg lamp and inflatable leg lamps for their front yards. What makes the success of the marathon even more surprising is that the film had several releases on DVD, HD DVD, and a special edition Blu-ray that came with a strand of lights. Even fans who own those releases tune into TBS for the annual "A Christmas Story" marathon, making it clear that this film is irreplaceable. As long as fans continue watching the all-day marathon, "A Christmas Story" will have a home on television.