Why the Tony Awards are Flopping on TV

As long as the Tony Awards forgets that it's putting on a TV show, and instead just wants to protect their little corner of the stage, that little corner is all they'll end up with.
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There's a controversy with the broadcast of this Sunday's Tony Awards on June 10, and at the heart of it is the serious problem that the Tony Awards show has long been facing but refused to acknowledge.

I'll get to the current controversy in a moment.

But first, time was when the Tonys were the crown jewel of awards shows. However, that is long gone, and the ratings have tumbled. For a while, networks cut the airtime. They've even tried splitting the broadcast with PBS. It's a mess.

Usually, general problems can't be described in personal terms. But this can.

I love the theater. And -- okay, I admit it -- I love musicals. My collection of recordings is too embarrassingly large to even admit. I listen, I scholarly study them. I think it's fair to say I'm a prime target for the Tony Awards show.

And I haven't watched them live for years.

I tape the broadcast, and then fast-forward through. In fairness, I do that for most awards shows, but with the Tonys I'm brutal. Zip, pause, gone.

The reason is not just that I don't know who most of these nominees are - even the actors - but also that I'll likely never see most of the shows. Mind you, I don't live out in the deep wilderness: I'm in Los Angeles. The ego-maniacally, self-proclaimed Entertainment Capital of the World.

Now, if I don't expect to see these nominees - and if I don't especially care who wins - I can only imagine how little the rest of the country cares. And down, down plummet the ratings for the Tony Awards show.

To be clear, everyone nominated deserves their awards and attention, no matter who knows them or not. But that's not the issue.

Here is the problem. It's really simple.

The people producing the Tony Awards show have forgotten that it's the Tony Awards SHOW. And show business is not only a business, it's also a show. And the Tony Awards have ceased to be this.

No one in the viewing audience seriously cares who wins an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy. Yet they've seen and heard those nominees. Imagine then how little they care about the Tonys. People tune in to an awards show because they want to be entertained. They want to see a good show.

The Grammy Awards realized that a while back. The Grammys used to be the worst awards show on television. Then the producers made it a party. Teamed up people who wouldn't otherwise sing together. Now, the Grammys are a must-see extravaganza.

Once upon a time the Tonys were must-see. Broadway legends Alexander Cohen and his wife Hildy Parks oversaw the show each year, and it was stunning. The 1971 show remains one of the greatest TV shows of any kind: to honor the Tony's 25th anniversary, they not only presented the five best musical nominees - but brought back the original stars of each of the previous 24 Best Musical winners to recreate their legendary roles!

There was Zero Mostel in "Fiddler on the Roof." Robert Preston in "The Music Man." Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!" Richard Kiley in "Man of La Mancha." On and on.

All on the same show. It was breathtaking television, whether or not you loved theater.

Cohen and Parks always found ways to have a theme. Every year, the Tonys did a show.

And now, it bickers.

The controversy this year is that the producers of the Tony Awards show and CBS finally wised up and decided to let the casts of two musicals that didn't get "Best Musical" nominations present a number. "Legally Blonde" and "LoveMusik." Very nice. Very smart. Add lively numbers that will entertain the audience.

One problem. Producers of the Best Musical nominees complained this would cut down on their airtime. Tony's management committee agreed, arguing it was unfair to other shows who wouldn't get on TV. And their argument has won.

Here's the thing: the complaint about unfairness is absolutely correct. But this isn't the Beaux Arts Cotillion. This is a TV show on national television that's supposed to be entertaining.

Why only present numbers from Best Musical nominees? Why not have the Best Actor nominees do a song? The Best Supporting Actress? Indeed, why only present nominated shows - how is that "fair" to the profession?

In presenting a full palate, audiences would not only be entertained - they'd actually see who these people are and then care who won. Yes, that would make the show longer. So...cut down on presenting awards on air. Or divide it between networks and PBS. Or make it longer . Or put it on cable. Or...

The point is that there are many things you could do if you made your goal To Put On An Entertaining Show. And the more entertaining, the more people would watch.

When Tony producers stopped trying to put on a show, that impacted all their judgment. Just one example: several years back, they decided that Big Dance Numbers were the snazzy way to showcase theater on TV. But it's an utterly foolish way. You merely see a mass of tiny, anonymous bodies flailing away. Not the stars TV audiences crave for - and theater audiences pay money for. Compare the chorus leaping around for "Too Darn Hot" or Richard Burton standing still, singing "Camelot." No contest. The first was "lively." The second was gripping, emotional, legendary.

And so, again, despite the best intentions of a few, Broadway producers have kept their turf and cut their audience. However, when you're charging upwards of $100 a ticket and more, you'd better do everything you can to start interesting people about the theater and demonstrating to them why they should care.

Because it is interesting. And they should care. But as long as the Tony Awards forgets that it's putting on a TV show, and instead just wants to protect their little corner of the stage, that little corner is all they'll end up with.

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