Retailers and Advertisers Flock Around Rockefeller’s Annual Tree Lighting

Earlier this month, it was warm enough, and quiet enough, to sit outside on the patio at Rockefeller Center, and enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day. Just days later, the sidewalks would be crowded with tourists and locals as well, gathered to take in a view of the giant Rockefeller Center tree.

The lighting of the tree is a shiny gift not just for tourists and TV viewers, but also for retailers. And it is a huge money maker for networks and broadcasters.

Networks love holiday TV specials for gathering multiple generations around the TV. Retailers love the increase in GRPs in order to showcase holiday themed ads and deals that drive consumers to their ecommerce sites and stores.

Earlier this week, the televised tree lighting ceremony aired on NBC, a tradition now 67 years old. It is a hallmark event during the holiday TV season, which now features must-see holiday specials on more than 20 networks, as well as the streaming services too.

The Rockefeller Center tree tradition dates back to 1931. During a particularly bleak time in the Depression, with homelessness and unemployment putting a damper on the holiday spirit, construction workers building Rockefeller Center put up a small tree for good cheer. It was 20 feet tall, and decorated with garlands from their families.

Two years later, with Rockefeller Center complete, the management company took over the project, and every year since 1933, a tree has gone up near the Rink — some years considerably taller than others, some years with more pomp and circumstance than others, some years better lit than others. During several years of World War II, the tree was unlit due to wartime blackout rules. In 1945, it was lit in red, white, and blue globes, and wooden stars to celebrate war’s end.

The 1951 tree lighting was the first year of televised coverage. An estimated 2,000 spectators stood outside for a performance from the Rockefeller Center Choirsters and Kate Smith performed Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” during an episode of her eponymous “The Kate Smith Show.”

Nearly every year since then, the televised lighting ceremony has been a ratings star for NBC, but in the late 1990s, viewer and advertiser interest really picked up. The show is now packed with celebrity performances. This year’s show included Diana Ross, Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, John Legend, Martina McBride,
 Pentatonix, Kellie Pickler, and Howie Mandel. Below is the opening from the 2010 program, featuring singer Jessica Simpson.

As the NYT reported in 1997, the live, hour-long show was the highest-rated television program in the New York City area that day, beating all other primetime shows, including NBC’s own hits ”NewsRadio,” ”Mad About You’,’ ”Dateline,” and even the Barbara Walters special, ”The 10 Most Fascinating People of 1997,” on ABC.

The program pulled in a 25 share, meaning one-fourth of all homes watching TV that hour were watching NBC’s coverage, and a 15.8 rating, significant for the era.

Last year, Matt Lauer’s shadow loomed over NBC’s telecast. It was the day of the lighting that we learned he was no longer an employee of NBC. He had co-hosted the annual event with fellow Today show anchors for years. Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie stepped in and drew 9 million viewers at 8 PM, almost double the season average of the regularly scheduled program that night, ”The Blacklist.” NBC won the night in ratings.

In 2016, rain did not dampen the ratings. The Christmas in Rockefeller Center special hosted by the Today Show’s Guthrie, Lauer, Kotb, and Al Roker, won its time period in total viewers and was up 30% percent compared to 2015’s special. The rain-soaked special gave a ratings gift to the time period’s season-to-date average, with a 106% increase in total viewers, going from 5.1 to 10.5 million.

As NBC’s Mark Marshall told Ad Age last week, “More and more people are trying to get around these big events. There’s not a lot of other places you can get this kind of reach leading into this important season.” With holiday sales estimated at $7 billion, brands are doubling down on television holiday ads.

Target increased holiday ad spending 21% percent this year per the Star Tribune, with a campaign featuring John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, and of course the year’s hottest toys. Overall, the holiday ads are expected to be up about 14% over last year, per Adweek.

Television, with its big screen and lush colors, is a medium well-suited for the emotional storytelling seen in so many commercials in the holiday season. Tear jerker or heartwarming, holiday ads have been found to have a halo effect on a brand for up to three years.  Advertisers eager to get in on the holiday spirit will continue to rely on television. Check out the newest holiday spots this season below.

If you can’t be together with loved ones, Samsung will bring everyone together with their phones.

A Walmart holiday spot featuring a woman and her dog and showcasing the ease with which one can order and get delivery from Walmart.

An eBay ad airing a lot this Holiday season.

Home Depot – everything you need to bring more joy to the world, and get your fake tree set up.

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