Yule Log History

Merry Christmas from WhitStillman.org!

The Sundance Channel used to have a great page on the Yule Log, but it’s now gone.  I rescued the text and here it is (Original article by Leah Churner for Sundance Now Blog):

It burns without commercial interruption. It is celebrated on the Internet, sold in the iTunes App Store, immortalized on the big screen and endlessly imitated on the small. Occasionally snuffed out when the economy blows cold, it is always stoked afresh with the arrival of new technologies. Lost for a time, it was found in New Jersey. It has sparked countless puns—almost as many as the fruitcake. It is video wallpaper. Conceptual art. Duchampian. Iconic. Fans think of it as a nostalgia trip. Detractors consider it a health hazard. It is the same age as Janet Jackson. Is your curiosity burning?

Here’s your historical timeline of a very special broadcasting event: The Yule Log.

1966 – With fewer than 10 channels on the New York City dial, local station WPIX-Channel 11 makes national news when it announces plans to cancel regularly scheduled Christmas Eve programming to present The Yule Log. For three commercial-free hours, WPIX will air video of a crackling fire with a soundtrack of Christmas music. The New York Times’ George Gent proclaims it the “television industry’s first experiment in nonprogramming.” Gent interviews the mastermind behind the yule log, general station manager Fred M. Thrower, who explains his wish to “restore for metropolitan New York families the kind of Christmas atmosphere that has become traditional in American life.” Source material is a 16mm color film shot in Mayor John Lindsay’s living room at Gracie Mansion. Duration is less than 20 seconds, but it will play on a continuous loop—the LBJ-era equivalent of a screensaver. Or animated GIF.

1970: – In four years, the “experiment” has become a tradition. With competition looming as the city starts to get wired for cable, WPIX decides to spiff up The Yule Log by retiring the battered old 16mm print and reshooting the fireplace in 35mm. But the Mayor’s office declines the request. Dedicated to the idea of a faithful remake (above), producers find a nearly identical fireplace in California, and capture the new yule log during a sultry August day.

1989: – By the late ‘80s, over half a million viewers tune in annually to watch what the Times calls “the longest running music video in America.” But those high ratings still don’t come with advertising dollars. WPIX pulls The Yule Log show from its schedule indefinitely.

1990: Early signs of log nostalgia: In director Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan,The Yule Log is positioned as a heartbreaking metaphor for loneliness and class anxiety. As the TV log glows in Tom Townsend’s meager apartment on the west side of Manhattan, real fireplaces roar unnoticed at the Plaza Hotel, and audiences outside of New York are introduced to the concept of the televised hearth.

1997: WPIX displays The Yule Log on its website. Although the Internet makes it possible for users to choose from several soundtracks, the tiny window and low-res fire make a sad thing even sadder.

2000: “Logoholics” Joe Malzone and Chip Arcuri launch a web and email campaign to “Bring Back the Log.”

2001: The “Bring Back the Log” campaign garners over 1,300 emails and Arcuri creates TheYuleLog.com to continue his advocacy mission. WPIX wants to bring back the log in but has misplaced the film. According to the New York Post, it was found “gathering dust in a film can” in New Jersey, just in time for Christmas. The Times asks general station manager Betty Ellen Berlamino if the decision to resume with the broadcast has anything to do with the World Trade Center attacks. She acknowledges that, “this is a year when everyone is clamoring for ‘comfort food television.’” And Berlamino is right: CNN reports that the log, airing in a digitally-remastered version for two hours on Christmas morning, won the highest Nielsen rating in New York City for that time slot.

2002: Thanks to broadband cable, channel space proliferates. WPIX can no longer contain the blaze. A high-definition version is filmed for cable, and Toronto’s Citytv becomes the first commercial station in Canada to air a yule log special. Is it too hot for Canada? Time will tell.

2004 – WPIX debuts its own HD version, but the Times critic Alessandra Stanley doesn’t like it because “the flames flicker too fast.” She warns that “staring at the yule log for an extended period” may induce seizures. A WPIX spokesman states that the yule log has not been sped up or adulterated in any way; this is simply a higher-resolution transfer of the 1970 film. Perhaps Stanley was just getting used to a new LCD flatscreen?

2006: The program’s 40-year history is the subject of a documentary on WPIX, A Log’s Life. This special runs with commercials.

2008: ‘Tis the season for knockoffs. WGN America (owned by Tribune Broadcasting, the same parent company as WPIX) airs Yule Log: The Golden Age Of Christmas, a nine-hour marathon of new fire footage shot in HD with festive audio from “The Golden Age of Radio.” Meanwhile, VOD provider iN Demand offers multiple log-related programs for purchase, and EMI Music launches a yule log app for iPhone and iPod touch.

2009 – WPIX adds a fourth hour to its loop, with new music selected by the legendary logoholic himself, Chip Arcuri.

2010 – iN DEMAND develops 3D Yule Log. Glasses required. With the Tribune Company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, WGN America pulls the log from national broadcast, but local stations still play a truncated version.

2011– WGN America moves the The Yule Log to its new classic-television cable network Antenna TV. Fury ignites on the official yule log message board when Arcuri’s fourth hour is edited. WPIX is still running the 4-hour HD version.

2012 – Echoing the apocryphal story of cinema’s first patrons fleeing the Lumière Brothers’ motion picture of an oncoming train, a stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan is compelled to remove video of a yule log from its jumbotron after several local residents call 911 reporting a massive blaze and smell of smoke. Drawing resources away from actual emergencies, the fire department declares the log a “public safety concern.” Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky observes, “nobody, anywhere, can have nice things.”