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Great Christmas Light Fight behind-the-scenes: the trophy, rules, casting, and more

Great Christmas Light Fight behind-the-scenes: the trophy, rules, casting, and more

ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight has become an annual holiday tradition, showcasing spectacular holiday light displays—and often, so much more than lights—that people construct on their homes across the country.

This year, for season nine, the six episodes air all during the same week: Nov. 28, 29, and Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. Each episode has four light displays, with Taniya Nayak or Carter Oosterhouse selecting a winner between those four.

Its success has led to a renewal for season 10, which us currently being filmed—though we won’t see those houses on TV until next year because of the show’s unique schedule.

That schedule is just one of the ways the show has changed behind the scenes over the years. While the basic structure and content of The Great Christmas Light Fight has stayed the same, how it’s produced, and the rules families must follow, has evolved considerably.

I talked with its executive producer and showrunner, Brady Connell—whose lengthy resume in reality TV producing includes both Survivor: Borneo and Amazing Race season one—about those changes, the rules, and filming during the pandemic.

Why is The Great Christmas Light Fight filmed a year in advance?

The Great Christmas Light Fight’s 2021 season nine was produced last fall, because the show now films one year in advance—which means it casts two years in advance. But that hasn’t always been the case.

“I got the call early September of 2013 to get the show ready to air in December of 2013,” Connell told me about the show’s first season. “The first four seasons, we shot in October, and then we were editing in November.”

That schedule, he said, “was not easy,” either for the production or the participants.

“We found that it was a lot to ask of the families to start putting up their displays in September, and for them to be ready for something they had to start as early as August—it’s just a lot to ask family and of a community,” he said.

Executive producer Felicia Aaron White suggested that “obviously be better if we could shoot the show in November, December, and demonstrate that it’s winter,” Connell explained, and “I said, well, the only way we can do that is if we shoot two seasons back-to-back one year. We pitched it to ABC, and they said that’d be great.”

Seasons four and five filmed in the same year, which “put us a year ahead.”

What that means is that the show is working two years in advance. Season nine was filmed and edited last year.

“We will be casting starting right after Thanksgiving—getting videos of people who are doing their displays this year,” Connell said. “That’ll for people that we’re going to be shooting for season 11 a year from now, but that won’t air until the following year, so 2023. We’re casting now, in a few weeks, for 2023.”

So yes, The Great Christmas Light Fight season 11 is already in the works, before season 9 even premieres.

How was the Great Christmas Light Fight filmed during COVID?

The Great Christmas Light Fight season 9 was filmed in 2020, and season 10 is being filmed now, in 2021, though it won’t air until 2022. That means two seasons were filmed during the pandemic.

The season that’s airing this December, “season nine, was shot last year right in the middle of the most-difficult time of COVID,” Connell told me. “To make production as safe as possible, we created traveling bubbles for each crew and for the judge.

Contestants in the same state will face off against each other for the first time on season 9—and that’s because of those traveling bubbles. “We shot regionally so that the crews and the judges wouldn’t have to fly, the way they normally would on our show. And they socially distanced; they did not wear masks on camera, because we were so careful with social distancing,” Connell said.

The season that aired last year was actually filmed in 2019, which is why there were crowds present for the lighting ceremonies.

“Even though we put up a disclaimer that it was shot not during COVID, people still wrote on social media: How dare you have crowds and hugging! It was hard for people to understand that it had been shot 12 months earlier,” Connell said.

That means there will be no crowds watching as the lights are turned on this year or next, during both season 9 and season 10.

But Connell said that, while “challenging,” the restriction had its benefits. “It actually led to a somewhat more intimate experience for the judges,” he said. “The judges really got to focus on the family, and they got to spend a little bit more time doing the walkthrough of each display, because there wasn’t so much time and energy put into the crowds.”

“Hopefully next year, COVID will be behind us, and we’ll invite people to come back out and enjoy the evening,” he added.

How are The Great Christmas Light Fight displays and families chosen?

Taniya Nayak, DiMartino family, The Great Christmas Light Fight
Taniya Nayak with the DiMartino family on The Great Christmas Light Fight. (Photo by Eric Liebowitz/ABC)

For each season, producers need 24 light displays: four for each of six episodes.

Those 24 are chosen from a finalist pool of about “60 or 70 amazing displays,” Connell told me, and there are enough new entries to keep the show going. “We have no problem casting the show. Most people think, Oh, how many Christmas lights displays are there? But there are enough coming in every year so we’re in good shape for the future.”

“From a reality television point of view, it doesn’t get any better than real people who are passionately exploring their personal artistry and presenting it for the good of the community,” Connell told me. “That’s fantastic. When I meet a family, and I hear their passion for what they’re doing, I get excited, because that’s why I’m in television: I want to document people, interesting people from all over the country who do amazing work.”

While reality television competition shows often cast for character—or because of a person’s backstory—Connell said that “we’re not picking because of story” and “our casting decisions are 99 percent because of the display. In those early years, the producer side of me said, I don’t know if a family is really going to come across the way we would hope from a reality television point of view. But we’ve got to cast them because their display is amazing.”

Connell said that they’ve always found compelling characters and stories behind the light displays.

“We, as producers, oftentimes filter people out because we think they’re not made for prime-time television. In doing so, we miss out on amazing people who have amazing stories,” he said. “It’s amazing what comes out when you just cast regular people because everyone’s got a story. I love that about reality TV.”

Once the show is cast, the displays that will face off against each other in each episode are selected simply because of filming logistics and schedules, Connell told me, although there is one exception: “We do try to have one light show in an episode. There’s fewer light shows than static displays, so we try to have at least one just for variety.”

In previous seasons, the show had a “heavyweight division,” an episode featuring non-residential homes. That’s because, Connell told me, “our casting team does a lot of Googling and looking at YouTube videos, and then we also have applications and nominations that come in from communities,” and “they were finding these extraordinary displays around the country that we’re not family homes. Sometimes they were displays that had grown too big for traditional homes, and had been moved to a local church or a park.”

Alas, showcasing those kinds of displays wasn’t possible for the seasons filmed last year and this year. “Those heavyweights do require crowds,” he said, which was impossible because of safety restrictions. That may return in the future, however.

Why did The Great Christmas Light Fight drop its rules?

Initially, The Great Christmas Light Fight required every participating display to be constructed in the same amount of time: three weeks. But that was dropped, along with other rules.

Connell said that was simply “us over-producing the show. What we found was that there was really no reason for us to put that kind of restraint on the families. Why do that? There was no point to it. … We want to see the best lights in the country, and it’s not about adapting to the rules of our show, it’s about who has the best displays.”

“So we just took all the rules away, basically. Now, you can leave your lights up year round. You can take them down; you can start as early as you want. And we’ve found that the families really appreciate that freedom, and we get the best displays,” he added.

Also gone: the rule that said families couldn’t have paid help, though Connell said “it’s very rare that families actually do hire anyone.”

Can light shows use any music or song?

To broadcast music and lyrics, producers of TV shows have to buy the rights, which is referred to as clearing a song (as in clearance). If a TV show wants to use a specific artist’s song, they have to acquire rights to broadcast both the song itself (i.e. the lyrics and music), and to the specific recording of the song (i.e. an individual artist’s performance of it).

On The Great Christmas Light Fight, some houses have light shows that are synchronized to music. But they can actually choose any songs they want, and are not limited to a pre-selected list that’s been pre-cleared by the producers.

“If they’re going to spend 120 hours programming a light show to a song, then they should be able to pick whatever song they want to present to the judge,” Brady Connell told me. “It’s not our place to tell them: No, that song is not cleared. You have to reprogram your whole light display to a song that we cleared. They can use whatever song they want to present to the judge.”

The producers do tell participants that, “if they can program two songs, that would be great, because we’re not sure we’re going to be able to clear your song for the show,” he added. “In post-production, we do everything we can to clear that song. If we can’t, then we clear the second song.”

In the rare event that producers are unable to clear those original songs—perhaps they’re not available, or are prohibitively expensive—they replace it with other music. Editors try to choose a “different song that sounds similar, has a similar beat, that we then cut the light show to,” Connell explained.

Because the judge hears whatever song the contestant has selected, the judge’s decision about who wins would never be affected by The Great Christmas Light Fight’s ability to actually broadcast a particular song.

How is The Great Christmas Light Fight judged?

Carter Oosterhouse and Taniya Nayak return to judge The Great Christmas Light Fight seasons 9 and 10
Carter Oosterhouse and Taniya Nayak return to judge The Great Christmas Light Fight seasons 9 and 10.(Photo by Richard Cartwright/ABC)

The show is filmed over six weeks, with four teams of producers and crews going from light display to light display, filming interviews and footage of the lights themselves.

Judges Taniya Nayak and Carter Oosterhouse, who’ve been on the show since season three, “meet up with those four teams on their on their big reveal nights,” Connell told me, and then, after looking at all four displays for that episode, return to the winner’s house for that reveal. “It’s a lot of simultaneous shooting all over the country for six weeks.”

Connell said that both Tanya and Carter “have a real strong sense of design and construction,” and that producers are not involved in any way in choosing winners.

“Each judge makes their decision solely; 100 percent, it’s their decision. We have no influence,” he said. “They go to all four [houses], and then they decide, and they go back to the winner’s.” That means there are “five trips for the judge per episode.”

In earlier seasons, there were three categories shown on each episode: “Use of Lights,” “Overall Design,” and “Christmas Spirit.” The judges scored each of those categories off-camera.

Now, they simply “track their impressions of each display, so that they can go back and review each display before they make their final decision,” Connell told me. Similar to those categories, “there are suggestions for them to take into consideration: the use of lights, Christmas spirit. But it’s no longer an official numerical, three-category judging. It is a method for them to be reminded of all the displays.”

Like with the change in rules for the families, Connell said, “We were trying to over-produce. What’s most-important is that the judge feels that this one deserves to win.”

How is The Great Christmas Light Fight’s trophy made?

The Great Christmas Light Fight's trophy, as seen in the trailer for season eight. The bulb is actually an upside-down champagne glass.
The Great Christmas Light Fight’s trophy, as seen in the trailer for season eight. The bulb is actually an upside-down champagne glass.

Besides that cash prize, the winners also receive a trophy: a massive C9 Christmas bulb that has regular-sized Christmas lights inside it, sitting on a wooden base.

Since the original plan for The Great Christmas Light Fight was to have one winner, producers thought, “this trophy has got to be amazing. There’s got to be something that people who do Christmas lights all across the country are going to want to win,” Connell told me.

A prop maker was hired to design the first trophy, and the solution was ingenious: “It’s basically a giant, upside-down champagne glass,” he said.

Incredibly, the original plan was to also make that bulb a snow globe. “We were going to put water inside of it. When it came time to ship, we realized that was probably not a good idea,” he said. “We took the water out and we put real Christmas lights inside of it, so that you can turn them on and off.”

Now, the show orders eight trophies every year from a prop-making shop: six trophies and two-back-ups. “They’re not inexpensive; they’re very well-made trophies,” Connell said.

How the show’s prize—and format—changed

If you win The Great Christmas Light Fight, you win $50,000 for your display. That prize is given out in each episode: four light displays face off, and the judge chooses one to win the cash prize and the trophy.

While that’s always been the cash prize, the original plan was very different.

In season one, ABC ordered five episodes, so producers planned to choose one winner in each of the first four episodes, with the finale featuring the four winners competing for $250,000.

“We were actually scouting in New York City [for a place] to fly those four winners to New York City, to set up a specially-constructed display competition, like in Bryant Park, for Christmas,” Connell told me. But “it just didn’t feel like the organic direction we wanted to be going in, because we want to see people’s displays on their houses. But we wanted to have a winner.”

Executive producer Max Swedlow pitched changing the format to standalone episodes, breaking up the $250,000 grand prize into five $50,000 prizes. “I was so happy that he came up with that suggestion,” Connell said. “We pitched ABC. They were thrilled.”

What’s next for The Great Christmas Light Fight?

For future seasons, The Great Christmas Light Fight producers are considering expanding to international displays, and also may bring back some displays from past seasons.

“We’ve talked about the potential for a rematch episode where people who have done the show before, who did not win, and who have changed their display so drastically,” would come back, Connell said. “We might put them up against each other for a rematch episode. Not sure about that yet, but we’re working on it.”

Now, though, the show is inspiring some people to decorate their homes, and just providing six hours of holiday TV for the rest of us.

“Each year, more and more people are getting involved in Christmas lights, because that not only makes all those communities happy, but it allows our show to keep going,” Connell told me. “Two nights ago, we were documenting a family that had just started their Christmas lights three years ago, and now they’re on the Christmas Light Fight.”

Connell also said that he was thrilled with “the idea that that we’ve been able to create a new holiday television tradition,” along the lines of classic shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas or the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

“To been able to create [a show] that people are watching annually now makes me really proud,” he said. “The crews and the producers and the families that have participated—I’m just really grateful to all of them for presenting this kind of a show to families during the holidays.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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