How Much Has NBC's 'Christmas in Rockefeller Center' Lit Up the Nielsen Ratings Lately?

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How Much Has NBC’s ‘Christmas in Rockefeller Center’ Lit Up the Nielsen Ratings Lately?

Viewership is about half what it used to be — but that doesn’t mean annual tree-lighting delivers a lump of coal

Though an all-time low, Wednesday’s 89th annual Christmas-tree lighting in New York City’s Rockefeller Center pretty easily won the night in TV ratings — but has “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” always shined like tinsel on the Nielsen sheets?

We looked back at data dating back to 1998, when the ceremony drew nearly 12.5 million viewers. That’s twice what the annual event gets these days — but it’s nowhere near a record-high. The 1999 lighting, weeks ahead of Y2K (remember that weird time?), topped 16 million total viewers.

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With the exception of the 2001 tree lighting, when a post-9/11 New York City really needed some holiday-season cheer, 1999 was the only other time the TV ceremony bested 15 million total viewers. (The 2001 TV special nabbed 15.2 million total viewers a few months after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.)

All told, “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” has topped 10 million viewers a nice, clean 10 times since 1998. The last time it happened was 2016, and the way things are trending, we may never see a number like that again.

NBC’s “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” has aired for two hours, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., for each of the past three years. All of the prior years were just one-hour specials, airing during the family-friendly (Read: the young kids are still awake) 8 o’clock hour.

With the exceptions of 2004 and 2010, when the special aired on Tuesdays, “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” has always aired on a Wednesday. While NBC began airing the tree lighting in 1997, electronic ratings records start the following year.

See each available year charted below. The previous record low for “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” came in 2019 (6.883 million total viewers). Sort of like the 2001 year, you can probably credit the desperate need for a little extra comfort and joy to the global coronavirus pandemic.


“Christmas in Rockefeller Center” is no longer the only game in (broadcast) town. On Sunday, for the first time ever, CBS will be airing “The National Christmas Tree Lighting,” a National Parks event based on the tree in the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, D.C. That one previously streamed on the organization’s website and social media platforms.

Good luck with that one, CBS. Not only is “The National Christmas Tree Lighting” second on the calendar and (at best) a second-rate franchise as far as tree lightings go, the LL Cool J-hosted special faced off against a primetime NFL game.

Broncos-Chiefs, an AFC West showdown with major postseason implications, kicks off at 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC. “The National Christmas Tree Lighting” on CBS begins 10 minutes later.