The program, which has run anywhere from two to four hours in length, is a film loop of a yule log burning in a fireplace, with a traditional soundtrack of classic Christmas carols and secular music playing in the background. It airs without commercial interruption.
The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York City John Lindsay. An estimated $4,000 (US) of advertising (along with a roller derby telecast that night) was canceled on Christmas Eve for the show's inaugural airing. Thrower, and WPIX-FM programming director Charlie Whittaker selected the music, largely based on the easy listening format the radio station had at that time, with the likes of Percy Faith, Nat King Cole, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Mantovani and The Ray Conniff Singers to name a few. During the shoot, the producers removed a protective fire grate so that the blaze could be seen to its best advantage. Unfortunately, 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 clear that the original 16 mm film was quickly deteriorating from wear and needed to be re-shot. (In addition, the original loop was only seventeen seconds long, resulting in a visibly jerky and artificial appearance.) Station producer William Cooper, a future recipient of a Peabody Award, again asked to shoot the loop at Gracie Mansion. However the mayor's office, remembering the mishap with the rug, refused permission. So 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, whose loop runs approximately six minutes and three seconds , has been the one viewers have seen ever since.
In March 2000, Yule Log fan Joseph Malzone of Totowa, New Jersey created a web site called "Bring Back The Log" (now called theyulelog.com), and petitioned station management to put The Yule Log back on the air. Three months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, WPIX VP/General Manager Betty Ellen Berlamino announced on WPLJ radio that the special would return. Berlamino explained that people wanted "comfort food TV" following the terrorist attacks. The digitally restored program was the most-watched TV program in the metropolitan New York area for Christmas Day of that year and has won its time slot annually since.
Program Director Julie O'Neil found the original master film of the 1970 fireplace in WPIX's film archives in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The master film was misfiled in a Honeymooners film can marked with the episode title “A Dog’s Life,” which led to the title of a 2006 40th anniversary special about the Log called A Log’s Life.
Other stations (and cable channels) have spawned imitations. Fellow Tribune station WDCW (then known as WBDC) in Washington, DC has done their own version, filming a log burning at Colonial Williamsburg. Beginning in 2003, an executive at INHD (now known as MOJO HD) was inspired as a youth by WPIX's Log, he produced his own version, which airs every Christmas as well as 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.
In 2005, Tribune began making a version of the Yule Log video recorded in MPEG-4 format available for download, advertising it as a "Portable Yule Log" for those traveling. In addition, the producers of Animal Planet's annual three-hour Super Bowl Sunday stunt programming called the Puppy Bowl were inspired by the Yule Log when creating the annual program.
In December 2006, to commemorate the program's 40th anniversary, WPIX aired 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 following a completely restored three-hour version of the 1970 "Log". Researched and compiled by Malzone and Christmas musicologist Lawrence "Chip" Arcuri, this latest incarnation features a newly re-digitized play list of the original soundtrack, which includes a number of tunes from the 1970 version that are not currently available on compact disc, but only on LPs now out of print.