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Back in 2013, the executives at NBC decided to hark back to an earlier time in the network’s history and stage a live musical. While the post-show reviews were mixed, The Sound of Music did well, pulling in 18.6M viewers.
Much of the viewership was driven by its lead, country music star Carrie Underwood. Much of the criticism was driven by its star, country music star Carrie Underwood, who had little acting experience and big shoes to fill. Still, all of the broadcast networks except CBS decided to board the musical train.
The problem is the train seems to be losing steam. The most recent attempt was Fox’s version of Rent Live! which turned into Rent Taped! after one of the performers, Brennin Hunt managed to break his foot during the final dress rehearsal the night before air.
That probably had little effect on the ratings, though. The play, inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème, updated and set “amid poverty, homelessness, spunky gay life, drag queens and punk” in the East Village of New York, was a hit on Broadway but not so much west of the Hudson. A 2005 film made by Columbia Pictures only recouped $31M of its $40M budget. Could Fox executives really be surprised at the dismal 1.4 Nielsen rating?
Almost immediately NBC announced it was shelving its next planned event, a staging of 1967’s Hair. (Its 1979 filming returned a modest $4M.) Somehow, even in a time when all of television seems to be obliged to take political or cultural swipes at traditional values, a play featuring nudity and a song called “Sodomy” seems a bit of a stretch and an unneeded risk.
For its part, ABC bailed on a planned adaptation of parent-company Disney’s The Little Mermaid. With the right casting that could have rivaled The Sound of Music in the top spot, but Disney decided to take its cartoon-cum-Broadway hit back to the big screen instead.
In a press release, NBC executives Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks were quoted as saying, “Live musicals are a part of this network’s DNA and we are committed to continuing that tradition with the right show at the right time.” They would probably be advised to return to their original plan, family-friendly classics with stars that appeal outside of the boardrooms of New York and Los Angeles. But everything needs to “make a statement” in today’s woke culture. The culture may be woke, but a lot a people are sleeping through the televised version of it.