Second only to watching televised fireworks, on the surface there's something oddly incongruous about watching parades on television. While there's a spectacle and a camaraderie that comes with experiencing events like these in person, it doesn't in any way translate to television. But that's not why we watch them.
Thanksgiving has long been known as the one day a year when ideologically disparate family and friends gather together, eat too much, and try not to anger each other. Even if your family is all more or less politically sympatico, the majority of the day’s television offerings consist mostly of football, which, in some parts of the country, can be a minefield of nearly equal proportions.
Enter the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (or just the “Thanksgiving Day Parade,” depending on your chosen network; more on that in a second). No matter your political or team affiliation, the parade provides the ideal inoffensive background noise. Unless your family holds some unnaturally strong opinions about floats versus falloons, nothing you might quibble on regarding the pageantry can rise to actual contentiousness. There’s almost nothing you can watch on Thanksgiving that’s less controversial, and whatever’s happening on the screen at any given time can provide an ideal pivot point away from a conversation that’s almost guaranteed to make you like each other less.
But neither is the parade something that ever requires your full attention. Devoid of narrative and continuity, each element is on your screen for somewhere between a few seconds and three minutes, only to give way to the next, wholly unrelated element. In other words, if you’re not a SpongeBob Squarepants fan, wait a minute or two and suddenly you’re looking at Astronaut Snoopy. Dip out for a moment to baste the turkey, return to the living room, and you’ve missed nothing of consequence.
When it comes to the parade, perhaps the only potential point of contention surrounds which channel to tune to. NBC is the only network that’s officially sanctioned to cover the parade. This means they’re the only ones allowed to mention Macy’s or show its exterior, the only ones allowed to show in-parade performances, and the only ones with cameras on the ground throughout the parade route. They also bring out their A-squad to host — Hoda Kotb, Savannah Guthrie, and Al Roker — armed with reams of material containing all the stats you could possibly want to know about every float, balloon, and performer.
Not to be outdone, CBS has aired its own coverage of the parade since the late ‘90s. (Prior to that, they tried to show a compilation of other Thanksgiving parades opposite NBC’s coverage of the Macy’s parade, but it turns out the only thing that can compete with the Macy’s parade is slightly different footage of that same parade.) In some markets, the NBC parade is tape-delayed, but the CBS parade runs live everywhere but the West Coast, thus allowing some audiences to catch their presentation earlier than the “official broadcast.” In others, it runs concurrently, forcing a choice unless you’re so into parades you’re DVRing one or the other.
Because CBS is not allowed to show any of the celebrity performers or even so much as utter the name “Macy’s,” its coverage takes on a sort of bootleg quality as its hosts (generally speaking, nobody you’ve heard of) provide color commentary on the procession from a nearby rooftop. (Back in 2012, a change in the parade route meant that there was no direct line of sight to the parade from any of CBS’s properties, though they have since found a spot that’s arguably a better vantage point than NBC’s.) Accordingly, the CBS coverage is traditionally looser, more improvised, and less beholden to corporate overlords. This more spontaneous feel can sometimes provide a better feeling of immediacy than the sometimes-overproduced NBC production, but then again, you also get fewer close-ups of the action and very little of the performances.
In lieu of showing the live performances at the parade itself, CBS frequently cuts to a theater or sound stage to feature a top-40 musician or the cast of a Broadway show. This, oddly enough, gives it the edge in this department, because in-parade performances tend to be less than stellar. Sure, it’s incongruous to cut away from the parade to a prerecorded performance from a room that’s nowhere near the parade route. However, it’s also fair to say that a rehearsed, polished musical number shot on a closed set might yield a little more artistic value than a shivering B-list pop star in three layers of sweaters attempting to lip-sync to an overproduced recording of your sixth-favorite holiday song.
Beyond this distinction, your parade coverage of choice is a matter of personal preference. Flipping back and forth between the two during commercials, or even just whenever you get bored, has its own peculiar charm, as does DVRing both to analyze the differences, but there’s no wrong way to do it: any way you slice it up, you’ll still derive all of the aspects of the parade that make it a good and worthwhile piece of entertainment for your holiday. However it is that cultivate your parade-viewing experience, if anything in 2019 can bring your family closer together in the way Thanksgiving was originally intended, this is it.
Just don’t bring your family to New York to watch it live. You’ll be at each other's throats. (Trust us on this.)
Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.