Quick. Your network is in fourth place. You’re programming a Thursday night during the holiday season and you’re up against CBS, FOX, ABC, cable, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. Oh, and you need a really big ratings hit. What do you do? If you’re NBC, you take a flyer – literally – and hope that lightning strikes twice.
A year ago, NBC bet the holidays on a live performance of “The Sound Of Music”starring Carrie Underwood as Maria and five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as the Mother Superior. At the time, expectations were tempered. When asked about the network’s hopes for “The Sound of Music,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt has said, “he was praying for a 2 because he could defend a 2.” Imagine his delight when the overnights showed a 10.6 rating representing more than 18 million viewers.
Last night, after what seems like months of promos, NBC was hoping to extend last year’s magic with a live production of “Peter Pan” starring Allison Williams in the title role and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. Of all the musicals NBC could have chosen, “Peter Pan” seemed an odd choice until I realized Neverland is something NBC has banked on a number of times before.
In the early 1950s, NBC purchased the rights to “Peter Pan” and in 1955, presented the show live as part of their Producers Showcase, a program created to “broadcast expensive color spectaculars to promote the new color television system developed by NBC’s parent company, RCA.”The live program starred Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard who had already won Tony Awards for the stage show, and represented the first time a full-length Broadway production was broadcast on color television.
Apparently it was a hit. Just 10 months later, NBC restaged “Peter Pan” and aired it again on January 9, 1956. It was then restaged again in 1960 and rebroadcast thereafter in 1963, 1966, 1973, 1989 and finally in 1990. Last night, NBC resurrected Peter, the Pirates and the Darlings yet again in the hope that America would tune in to J.M. Barrie’s story about never growing up. It’s something the network has been all too familiar with lately.
NBC continues to find themselves about as big an underdog as you can get. After all, it was just 18 months ago during February sweeps, the proud peacock dropped to 5thplace behind Univision, a precipitous drop for the one-time #1 network. For years now, the longtime category leader has been more of a challenger brand and staging “Peter Pan” was certainly part of trying to right the ship.
Admittedly, when you’re the underdog, you have to think differently. You have to think outside your comfort zone and take calculated risks. Staging a live musical on network television is a gamble in and of itself. But I’m curious why, after pulling a 10.6 with “The Sound of Music,” one of the most beloved musicals of all time, NBC would bypass West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Grease, A Chorus Line, Cats, Ragtime, Dreamgirls, Jersey Boys, South Pacific, Hairspray and even something as crazy ambitious as Les Miserables, to pass the baton to Allison Williams and Christopher Walken to try and pull off “Peter Pan,” a show you’d be hard pressed to find in the top 50 of any all-time greatest musical lists.
Turns out America wondered the same thing. Overnights for “Peter Pan LIVE” show a disappointing 5.9 rating, 46 percent behind the rating for “The Sound of Music” a year ago. Does that signal the end of the live musical on television? Does that make last night a failure of challenger thinking? Not at all. If there’s one thing challenger brands have to be, it’s relentless. Underdogs are tenacious. They’re scrappy. And the worst thing they can do is stop thinking big and trying the unexpected because something they tried didn’t work.
If NBC really wants to shake things up, they ought to stage a production of “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” or “Spring Awakening.” Maybe mix in some light drama like “August: Osage County” or “Gods of Carnage.” That would be awesome! But it will have to wait. Next up: “The Music Man LIVE.” Three hours of a shyster music teacher, a spinster librarian, 76 trombones and a kid with a speech impediment? How can it miss?