Just six million people caught The Tony Awards earlier this month on CBS, continuing the downward rating funk of this jewel on the entertainment awards scene.
Of the big four annual network TV award ceremonies – the other three being the Academy, Emmy and Grammy Awards – the Tonys, year-in and year-out, land on the bottom rung, despite huzzas as the best-produced and most entertaining, year after year. Why the annual turn-off for this best of Broadway presentation? Don't blame CBS, or the host (Neil Patrick Harris this year) or anyone up and down the line involved with the telecast.
Chalk it up to a simple fact, one the Broadway community isn't comprehending: there's not much interest in theater beyond the borders of New York City. When new movies or TV shows or books or music premiere, everyone has the opportunity nationwide to see or hear them, no matter where they live. When Broadway plays or musicals premiere, they are not available everywhere at that moment. It's just a NYC situation. So when the Tony nominations come out, no one beyond NYC knows of them. When you don't know, you don't develop rooting interest. Who's caring?
When the Tonys were first shown on TV in the 1960s, several factors help popularize the nominees despite the lack of national live theater. One was the popularity of Broadway soundtrack albums, which were available everywhere. Second, Tony-winning musicals generally became motion pictures a year or two after they won their awards. Third, the top Broadway composers produced musicals year after year, so there was a plentiful supply of material turned into soundtracks. All three factors led to solid TV ratings for the Tonys.
However, when soundtrack albums were few and limited in distribution, Hollywood stopped making musicals on a consistent basis, and composers you counted on to do shows passed away or retired – with a new generation failing to take their place – the Tonys went on a ratings plunge. Broadway lovers wished for a renewed interest and more viewers, but that hasn’t happened.
If the Broadway community wants their annual awards to have a national TV home somewhere, whether on CBS or on another broadcast/cable network, some radical steps must be taken to drive up national attention to theater. Here's the first: have the opening night of every Broadway show available live (or aired on the same-day/week) nationally via video-on-demand over cable and satellite operators, plus YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and pbs.org. No exceptions. For all the worrywarts who think such exposure will damage box-office, try this out: if more people around the country knew your shows were on in the first place, maybe they might visit NY to see them, and encourage their friends to visit. Side hint: put highlight clips on Facebook and Twitter, so you can build up a social media following.
Second, stop presenting the Tonys in June. Do it in May, when more people watch TV. Announce the nominees in mid-April and stage the Tonys no later than than a week or two before Memorial Day. Don't leave the promotion up to CBS alone.
And third, whip up a weekly rundown of Broadway action, suitable for primetime on a cable network (Ovation and Bravo are two obvious places). For ideas, check out New York 1 News' On Stage, or Theater Talk, occupying late night on public TV stations (deserving of better placement on those stations).
It's reality check time for the Tonys and for theater's place on TV. Do nothing, suffer less audience next year and risk permanent absence on the tube beyond 2013, or get busy and let the best of theater rise to the widest TV crowd it can get. Your choice, theater-making crowd.
Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!