Variety, Music And Comedy Specials: A Dying Breed

Bold specials make nice with the niche
Road to the Emmys: Variety, Musical or Comedy – Specials

Providing further evidence that the broadcast networks have ceded a once-prolific and award-worthy genre to pay cable, four of the five Emmy nominees for variety, music or comedy special aired on HBO.

HBO’s slate of contenders — “Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking,” “Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On,” “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway” and “Lady Gaga Presents: The Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square Garden” — is up against the champ of the past two years, “The Kennedy Center Honors,” which has aired annually on CBS since 1979 and captured seven Emmys overall.

“The Kennedy Center Honors,” of course, was by far the largest audience-grabber of the contingent. Despite airing on the Tuesday between Christmas and New Year’s, it drew 9.35 million viewers and has averaged about that number in recent years in a similar timeslot.

“We structure the evening to provide drama, artistry, humor and surprise,” says producer George Stevens Jr., who has been associated with the program since its inception. “When done properly, this makes for a very moving experience for our audience. I believe that’s why so many viewers make an appointment to watch it every holiday season, and why we hear from so many people that watching the Honors is a tradition that involves the entire family.”

A handful of other broadcast network specials during the 2010-11 season clocked in with ratings of more than 10 million viewers. “The Barbara Walters Special: Oprah, the Next Chapter,” which aired Dec. 9 on ABC, attracted 13.3 million viewers, and Walters’ “10 Most Fascinating People” the same night on ABC garnered 12.2 million.

The third most-watched special was Fox’s “Mobbed,” which aired March 31 on Fox, scored 10.82 million viewers and is spawning a midseason series in 2011-12. Other highly rated specials during the season include CBS’ “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials” and “Girls Night Out: Superstar Women of Country,” plus NBC’s “SNL: Backstage.”

Overall, however, variety, music and comedy specials on the broadcasters are few and far between, with programs featuring big stars like Beyonce not doing so well in the ratings.

“This is a fading genre, with limited broadcast television appeal and limited contenders for the category each season,” says a television studio research chief. “My guess is the list of specials that were not nominated is not much longer, as there simply aren’t that many shows produced like this any more.”

Prestige, rather than ratings, is the priority for HBO’s specials, which appeal to the pay cabler’s older, upscale audience. Though “Lady Gaga” drew a fairly sizable audience — 1.16 million viewers — the other nominees attracted far fewer.

Of the variety, music or comedy special nominees in the 15 years, about 25% of them are concerts and 40% are one-person shows. The remainder have been retrospectives, honors, Olympic ceremonies and award shows. Awards shows such as the Tonys, Oscars and Grammys are now entered in a separate category.

“It’s interesting that this year, 80% of the nominees are essentially one-person shows, which historically continue to be dominant,” says TV Academy awards exec VP John Leverence. “The resiliency of this classic genre is kind of extraordinary as it gets restructured and remixed for contemporary audiences.”

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