NBC’s annual December live musical has become a holiday season TV tradition, but for the first time in five years, the network is on the sidelines this month after postponing Bye Bye Birdie Live! due to scheduling difficulties with star Jennifer Lopez. But audiences will still be able to get their live holiday musical fix this year: On Sunday, Fox will air A Christmas Story Live!, based on the iconic 1983 Christmas movie, which later became a 2012 Broadway musical.
And, as has been the case with several recent live musicals, the network is partnering with a major brand—Old Navy, the show’s exclusive retail partner—for integrations, six-second and 30-second ads and Facebook Live backstage access.
Fox announced the production back in May, shortly before NBC decided to delay Bye Bye Birdie. “Honestly, we didn’t think a lot about what NBC might do or not do,” said Gary Newman, chairman and CEO, Fox Television Group. “The fact that now there’s no other competition when it comes to a live musical is great for us. We have high hopes.”
So does his company’s ad sales team. Holiday season live musicals have been attractive to advertisers since NBC scored a surprise hit with The Sound of Music Live! in 2013, drawing 21.8 million viewers, and a 5.6 rating in the 18-49 demo, in live-plus-7 ratings. While NBC’s subsequent efforts—live productions of Peter Pan, The Wiz and Hairspray—haven’t replicated those lofty numbers (those three averaged 12 million and a 3.3 demo rating in live-plus-7), the network has continued to rake in ad revenue. Last year’s Hairspray Live! generated an estimated $24.9 million, more than double The Sound of Music’s $11.2 million, according to Kantar Media.
“The musicals have been particularly successful because they’re fresh and new, and the fact that they’re done live gives people a reason to tune in live,” says Jill Isherwood, vp, associate director of broadcast research at GSD&M. “And generationally, there’s a love for this genre” thanks to shows like Glee. Plus, given the holiday shopping season, “it’s the audience you want, at the time you want it.”
Now, Fox—whose first foray into live musicals, January 2016’s Grease Live, matched Sound of Music’s 5.6 rating in the live-plus-7—is primed to capitalize on those holiday advertisers. “We were thrilled when the network scheduled this live event right before Christmas, because obviously, from a retail standpoint, it made perfect sense,” said Suzanne Sullivan, evp, entertainment sales, Fox Networks Group, noting that there was a strong upfront demand for the telecast from both the retail and theatrical categories.
Of all the brands involved in A Christmas Story Live!, Old Navy will have the highest profile during Sunday’s telecast. Even though the retailer did not open its first stores until 1994, five decades after the events of A Christmas Story, it will still be integrated into the live production.
The telecast will feature a 1940s version of an Old Navy storefront in the main village square, and the wardrobe will feature several Old Navy items, everything from winter accessories and puffer jackets to the brand’s Jingle Jammies pajamas. The boy band PrettyMuch, which will perform as the carolers in A Christmas Story’s fictional town of Hohman, Ind., will also be decked out in Old Navy clothing.
Old Navy has purchased more than four minutes of ad time during the telecast, which will include several 30-second spots as well as six-second ads playing off iconic Christmas Story moments—featuring the Live! cast—like the bunny suit, triple dog dare and leg lamp. Two of those spots will appear in the telecast; Old Navy is also sharing all three of them on its digital and social platforms leading up to Sunday night.
During, before and after Sunday’s production, Old Navy will also offer audiences an exclusive behind the scenes look at the set via Facebook Live. “This is a true cross-platform live event partnership,” said Sullivan.
“Our HoliYay campaign is about recapturing the kid-like joy around the holiday season, for kids ages 0 to 100, which aligns perfectly with how this classic story brings the holidays to life through Ralphie’s eyes,” said Old Navy CMO Jamie Gersch. “We want to be part of our customers’ traditions and love how this live viewing experience brings families together to share in a cultural moment.”
In addition to the six-second ads, which Fox first tested during another live event, August’s Teen Choice awards, the network is planning to produce a live commercial during the show, Sullivan said.
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Fox announced that the telecast will include a two-and-a-half minute live commercial for the 20th Century Fox film The Greatest Showman. In the spot, the musical’s stars Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya and Keala Settle will perform one of its original songs, “Come Alive.”
Given that A Christmas Story Live! is airing later in the holiday shopping season than NBC’s musicals, the show will be an ideal spot for brands targeting last-minute shoppers, “particularly when your message is directed at males, who tend to delay their holiday shopping a bit,” said Isherwood. Sullivan said that battery brands—who want to remind people that their new electronics purchases will need them—and gift card retailers should also pop up in the telecast.
While Fox has the live musical genre to itself this season, NBC says it will be back in the mix come 2018. “Next Christmas, I guarantee you we will come back with a Christmas musical,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. “And I hope it’s Birdie. If that doesn’t work out, there are a handful of other musicals that we want to do.”