The Yule Log was created in 1966 by Fred M. Thrower, president and chief executive officer of WPIX, Inc. Inspired by an animated Coca-Cola commercial from a year earlier that showed Santa Claus at a fireplace, he envisioned the program as a televised Christmas gift to those residents of New York who lived in apartments and homes without fireplaces. This also provided time for employees of the television station to stay home with their families, instead of working for the usual morning news program.
The original program was filmed at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, at the time. An estimated US$4,000 of advertising (along with a roller derby telecast that night) was canceled on Christmas Eve for the show's inaugural airing that day. Thrower, and WPIX-FM programming director Charlie Whittaker selected the music, based largely on the easy listening format that the radio station had then, with the likes of Percy Faith (whose rendition of "Joy to the World" is played at the beginning and the end of the telecast), Nat King Cole, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, Mantovani and the Ray Conniff Singers, among others. During the filming, the producers removed a protective fire grate so that the blaze could be seen better; a stray spark damaged a nearby antique rug valued at $4,000.
The program was both a critical and ratings success, and by popular demand, it was rebroadcast for 23 consecutive years, beginning in 1967. However, by 1969, it was already apparent that the original 16 mm film was quickly deteriorating from wear and needed to be re-filmed. Also, the original loop was only 17 seconds long, resulting in a visibly jerky and artificial appearance. Station producer William Cooper, a future recipient of a Peabody Award, again asked to film the loop at Gracie Mansion, but the mayor's office refused permission. In 1970, WPIX found a fireplace with similar andirons at a residence in California and filmed a burning log on 35 mm film there on a hot August day. This version's loop runs approximately six minutes and three seconds.
From 1974 to 1989, a special message by Richard N. Hughes, then the vice president and general manager of WPIX-TV, usually preceded the program, which was broadcast every Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and sometimes both. The cost of broadcasting the program without commercial interruption prompted Michael Eigner, who had been appointed as the station's new general manager upon Hughes's retirement, to cancel it in 1990; incidentally that year, director Whit Stillman included a scene of a New Yorker viewing the Log in his movie Metropolitan. Despite being flooded with hundreds of letters protesting the move, WPIX did not broadcast the program, a move that lasted for eleven years, the longest-lasting hiatus for a television special at that time. Beginning in 1997, WPIX offered various versions of The Yule Log on the Internet.
In March 2000, Totowa, New Jersey resident Joseph Malzone, a longtime fan of The Yule Log, created a Web site named "Bring Back The Log", now named TheYuleLog.com, and administered by Lawrence F. "Chip" Arcuri, petitioning station management to bring back The Yule Log broadcast. In December 2001, WPIX vice president/general manager Betty Ellen Berlamino announced during an appearance on local radio station WPLJ that the special would return to the television station after an eleven-year absence. Berlamino explained that people wanted "comfort food TV" in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The digitally restored program was the most-watched television program in the New York metropolitan area on Christmas Day that year and it has continued to be broadcast annually ever since as a result.
Program director Julie O'Neil found the original master film of the 1970 fireplace at WPIX's film archives in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The master film had been misfiled in a Honeymooners film canister marked with the episode title "A Dog's Life", which resulted in a 2006 40th anniversary special about the Log being titled A Log's Life. In 2009, a fourth hour of the program was added, featuring 22 new songs and seven new artists.
On July 29, 2016, a 16 mm print of the original 1966 version of the Yule Log was discovered amongst a collection of films recovered from the estate of former WPIX executive and producer William Cooper two years prior. The discovery had been made by archivist Rolando Pujol while going through the old films in search of footage of then-President elect Donald Trump. After undergoing digital restoration, WPIX later announced that they would air it on December 24 of that year - exactly 50 years to the day of its debut. An encore airing would follow at 7:00 a.m. on December 25, followed by the modern four-hour log.
In 2003, Tribune Broadcasting — whose corporate parent has owned WPIX since its founding in 1948 — announced that in addition to being broadcast in New York City, The Yule Log would air on television stations that the company owns in other U.S. television markets, and would be remastered for broadcast in high definition. The program made its national debut in 2004 on Tribune flagship station WGN-TV in Chicago and its companion cable channel, Superstation WGN (now WGN America, at the time serving as WGN-TV's superstation feed).
In 2008, the Tribune stations aired their own version, with holiday-themed old-time radio programs being played in the background instead of music. This was reverted to the original WPIX version for the 2009 broadcast. WGN America chose not to broadcast The Yule Log in 2010 and 2011, citing the economic infeasibility of devoting several hours to commercial-free programming on a national channel; however, the program was broadcast in the Chicago market by WGN-TV, and by Tribune Broadcasting's other television stations. For the 2010 edition, WPIX and Los Angeles sister station KTLA (channel 5) aired a four-hour broadcast of The Yule Log on Christmas morning. In 2011, Antenna TV, a digital multicast network that Tribune had launched that January, aired The Yule Log for the first time, making the concept available nationwide once again.
In 2010, Gospel Music Channel (GMC) (now Up) aired a 24-hour broadcast of The Yule Log from 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Christmas Eve until 8:00 p.m. Christmas night. In 2013, WPIX streamed The Yule Log on its website during Christmas Eve, in addition to televising it on Christmas Day. In recent years, Tribune's New Orleans ABC affiliate WGNO-TV (channel 26) has also aired the Yule Log on Christmas Day (the only time in which the station does not air most of its regular newscasts, as ABC airs NBA games on that day), in place of network news programs World News Now and America This Morning, and WGNO's local weekday morning newscast.
According to author Ron Feigenblatt, the WPIX-TV Yule Log inspired his similar digital medium demonstration on the then-young IBM Personal Computer, starting in 1985. At that time, the PC's new Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) finally allowed one to achieve limited, full-color, full-screen, pseudo-continuous, raster-graphics animation on a primitive consumer-grade personal computer, by flipping, during the frame-refresh interval, between four different (synthetic or pre-processed photographic) screen images pre-loaded into the display adapter memory, using a computer application program called PCMOVIE, written at IBM Research and distributed throughout IBM.
For the most part, PCMOVIE was used to display temporally periodic animations, which required no more than four frames to detail the motion; but it was also well-suited to simulating the anarchic (albeit aperiodic) visual character of something like a fireplace. Interactive keyboard input on PCMOVIE allowed the animation on display to run forward or backward, and at a wide variety of speeds. The speed variation was of particular value for a Yule Log loop, letting one vary the violence of the fire. And of course, the digital nature of the demonstration meant that it was trivial to back up the four-frame Yule Log video-loop data file, in stark contrast to a physical film loop which would eventually show wear. The popularity of the Yule Log demo helped build awareness within IBM Research of the emerging value of personal digital devices like PCs for showing the type of video people of those times commonly encountered only via analog television and film-based cinema.
Some television stations and cable channels that have broadcast imitations of the Yule Log simulcast the Christmas music from a radio station that is playing it, and before 1989, the WPIX version also secondarily promoted the playing of the same Christmas music in a simulcast over its sister FM station, WPIX-FM (101.9), for those unable view the Yule Log on television (or for those who wanted to listen to the broadcast in stereo, as stereophonic sound was not standard in television, nor were most television sets equipped with high quality sound systems, until the 1990s).
Other television stations (and cable channels) have spawned imitations. Fellow Tribune station WDCW (then WBDC) in Washington, D.C. has produced its own version, filming a log burning at Colonial Williamsburg. In the 2000s, Jason Patton — an executive at INHD (later MOJO HD, now defunct), who was inspired as a youth by WPIX's Yule Log — produced his own version, which has been broadcast every Christmas from then on via On Demand. Broadcasters as diverse as Oregon Public Broadcasting, the MSG Network (as well as its former competitor, the Empire Sports Network) and the CHUM Television group in Canada have also borrowed the concept.
WKBW-TV in Buffalo, New York (owned at the time by Granite Broadcasting Corporation, now by the E. W. Scripps Company), as a replacement for that day's morning newscast, introduced the Yule Log as a replacement in 2008; it did not return in 2009, but WBBZ-TV (who hired WKBW's former program director and Empire Sports Network's former vice president) brought the Yule Log to their station, where it continues to air annually. KSTC-TV in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota (owned by Hubbard Broadcasting) also produces a local version of the Yule Log. In its early years, the Home Shopping Network also aired a Yule Log in place of regular programming (the network traditionally does not air live shopping programming on Christmas Day) before moving to a loop of Tampa Bay Area choirs singing Christmas carols and host wishes in subsequent years. Sprout offers a 12-hour loop called The Sprout Snooze-A-Thon (previously called A Goodnight of Sweet Dreams) on Christmas Eve evening, which features scenes of sleeping characters from the network's programming set to soft music to soothe children to sleep before the arrival of Santa Claus. QVC also airs a Yule Log every year on December 25 (as like HSN, the network does not air live programming on Christmas). The Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel has a version featuring an orange cat and a Jack Russell dog, both named "Happy". It promotes Hallmark's Pet Project to encourage shelter adoptions and proper pet care.
In 2014, two ESPN networks aired college athletics-themed variations of the concept: SEC Network aired a yule log that incorporated fight songs of Southeastern Conference schools into its soundtrack, while Longhorn Network aired a similar special featuring footage of Texas Longhorns mascot Bevo roaming a ranch, set to holiday music. In 2016, ESPNU aired a Yule Log special featuring Mike Golic, Jr. eating Christmas cookies and taking in the environment around him.
A great many "video fireplace" productions with a similar format have also been marketed on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray Disc, some of which are entitled "Yule Log". The Yule Log program also helped influence the "Puppy Bowl", an annual special broadcast by cable network Animal Planet on the day of the Super Bowl.
The 2002 DVD release of Disney's Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas included a video fireplace as a bonus feature.
In December 2006, to commemorate the program's 40th anniversary, WPIX broadcast a one-hour special about its history. Titled A Log's Life, the documentary included commentary by Fred Thrower's son Mitch, Bill Cooper's widow Kay, and Malzone. The program was broadcast four times, including once on Christmas Day, directly after a completely restored three-hour version of the 1970 "Log". Researched and compiled by Malzone and Arcuri, a Christmas musicologist, this latest incarnation features a newly re-digitized playlist of the original soundtrack, which includes a number of music pieces featured in the 1970 version that are not currently available on compact disc, but only on LPs that are now out of print.
In 2008, Outback Steakhouse paid homage to The Yule Log by having the first 20 seconds of a 30-second advertisement feature a CGI version of the log, before shifting focus to some steaks. Also in 2008, animation director PES released a free screensaver that reimagined the Yule Log in the form of food, with pretzels used for the log and candy corn for the flames.
Actor Nick Offerman released his own version of The Yule Log on December 2, 2015 in the style of his character Ron Swanson, from the television series Parks and Recreation. Offerman pours a glass of Lagavulin single malt scotch whiskey as the Yule Log fire plays and stares at the camera for 45 minutes.
For several years the Canadian channel MuchMusic has aired a variation in which a television screen showing Christmas-themed music videos is displayed above a fireplace.