The McCann Time Capsule: Helping Charlie Brown Get on TV
Met Life announced a few weeks ago that it was retiring the Peanuts cartoon characters from its long-running ad campaign. But Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang continued with their enduring TV presence last week in the annual broadcast of “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” —a Halloween tradition begun 50 years ago thanks to McCann.
The story of how the Peanuts characters first made it onto TV started in the early 1960s when the San Francisco-based independent TV producer Lee Mendelson had worked with Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoons, on a 1963 baseball film featuring Charlie Brown. While that film was never sold, Mendelson had been looking for a way to bring Charlie Brown to TV.
As Jean Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, has written on her blog about the 1965 origin of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the first of the Peanuts animated TV specials, “The first star to align was probably the call from John Allen with McCann Erickson, the advertising agency that represented Coca-Cola, who asked Lee Mendelson if he had a Christmas special. Lee took it from there.” Allen, who was McCann’s New York VP in charge of the TV department, was “looking for a Christmas show for Coca-Cola to sponsor,” according to a 1966 McCann internal newsletter.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” went on the air on Dec. 9, 1965, and was an immediate critical and ratings success. But while the Peanuts characters currently seem a natural for TV, their path to network exposure was unsure. “No one wanted to gamble on a new special, independently produced,” the McCann newsletter said, noting that Allen’s decision entailed some risk. Then, they also had to find a broadcast network willing to “pre-empt a regular show in prime-time.”
“It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” followed a year later on CBS, on Oct. 27, 1966, pre-empting “My Three Sons.” And McCann and Coke had clearly found a successful sponsorship vehicle, as the Nielsen ratings in 1968 illustrate very dramatically. During the late October 1968 time slot in which the Peanuts animated Halloween special ran, it was the No. 1 show for the week, with a 29.5 rating and an amazing 48 share, beating out such prime time regular programming champions as “Laugh-In,” “Mayberry R.F.D.,” and “Bonanza.”