There have been dozens of animated Christmas specials on television over the years, but only a small handful have become perennial classics. This holiday season, another contender takes center stage: Ozzie the Elf. Only time will tell if Ozzie — who will star in ABC’s “The Online Adventures of Ozzie the Elf” in late December — has seasonal star power, but certainly the character has a strong pedigree, springing to life thanks to the efforts of such heavyweights as former NBC programming executive Brandon Tartikoff and stop-motion animation pioneer Will Vinton. …..

One of the first animated characters to earn a TV starring role after beginning life as an Internet creation, Ozzie was targeted by Tartikoff as a property with TV potential after he discovered then-named Ernie the Elf (since changed for copyright reasons) as part of “Santa’s Home Page,” an online channel for kids offered by America Online during the 1996 holiday season and returning this year. At the time, Tartikoff — who died this past August — was serving as chairman of AOL’s Entertainment Asylum channel and had been named to the AOL board of directors with a mission to identify properties with crossover web and TV potential.

“Brandon thought the character could translate well into a holiday-based TV show,” says Kim Fleary, consultant for Tartikoff’s H. Beale Co., which is co-producing the show for ABC with Will Vinton Studios and America Online. “He went out seeking to attach Will Vinton to do the animation because they had an outstanding record for doing TV specials.”

Jenny Tripp, who wrote the original “Santa’s Home Page” site, was commissioned to write the half-hour show, and 30 Vinton animators have been applying the company’s trademarked, stop-motion animation style to the program since April. The show, about a rambunctious, contemporary elf who attempts to get Santa Claus to “upgrade” Christmas by adding modern technology to his North Pole toy-making shop, is being prepared specifically with the idea of making it “a Christmas perennial,” according to Vinton president/CEO Tom Turpin. He adds that the character’s built-in Web following means ABC and producers have a strong core audience and an excellent marketing weapon to build interest in the character.

” ‘Santa’s Home Page’ will be back on AOL this year with a special holiday promotion,” says Turpin. “They will use the characters from the TV special in another storyline, and will also offer a special behind-the-scenes look at how we animated the TV show. Last year, they told me the site had about a million hits, which translates into about 50,000 discrete users. While that number is small for a TV audience, it is a strong beginning for a core audience. And if you look at the power and trends with the Internet, I think we have a tool to helps us make this character very popular.”

The project represents the latest step in plans by Vinton Studios to ramp up its television production unit. Having already won several Emmys over the years for holiday specials such as “Meet the Raisins” and “A Claymation Christmas Celebration,” the company has recently made a name for itself with award-winning commercial work in both the stop-motion and CGI formats. Vinton’s recent Nissan commercial (stop motion) and series of M&M spots (CGI) have been highly praised in the industry in the last year, but Turpin says the company is aggressively moving into longform projects.

In addition to “Ozzie the Elf,” the studio is currently finalizing work on two TV pilots, which it expects to announce early in ’98, along with a feature film and a 3-D movie based on the M&M characters for a Las Vegas hotel attraction.