It's been a matter of form for decades; every year CBS, ever-nicknamed the "Tiffany Network," carries the jewel of theatre awards: the Tonys. This year is not expected to be any different, though theatre sources are apparently speculating that CBS may be rethinking its approach to the awards, following the poor ratings for this past broadcast.
A July 17 Daily News article quoted and paraphrased unnamed sources at CBS noting that the network is, more than anything else, ready to end Rosie O'Donnell's reign as host. They apparently feel she's had too much power over the broadcast and favors friends with air-time. They also weren't thrilled that she appointed Nathan Lane as co-host. The Daily News article quoted one source as saying, "We're going to try for a completely new look" for next year.
Contractually, CBS has the right to run the Tonys through 2004, and August is when the network generally opts to say yes or no on broadcasting the event the following June. "We fully anticipate CBS will pick up the Tonys again this year," American Theatre Wing president Roy Somlyo told Playbill On-Line (July 19). "[CBS president] Leslie Moonves is a fan of the Tonys, and it's his decision. I'm sure he'll do a timely pickup." The Wing co-produces the Tony Awards with the League of American Theatres and Producers.
CBS director of publicity Emily Bear seemed to echo Somlyo's positive outlook when she told Playbill On-Line (July 19), "CBS has always been supportive of the Tony Awards and will continue to be supportive of the Tony." She said it was "way too far in advance" to have any information, of any kind, on next year's Tonys. "We haven't announced an air date yet. There's really no information now... We never get asked these questions at this time of year." She would not comment on any contractual dealings between CBS and the Wing/League.
A spokesperson at the Keith Sherman press office, which represents the Tony Awards, told Playbill On-Line he'd read the Daily News article about CBS' unrosy view of the 1999-2000 Tonys the previous week but didn't know "where people were digging up stories... There's no news whatsoever about next year. It's not even on the radar screen." An O'Donnell spokesperson at PMK told Playbill On-Line (July 20) it was "too premature to say anything" about next season's Tonys and referred all further questions to the Keith Sherman office. Asked if CBS execs had given O'Donnell any feedback regarding her hosting duties this year, the spokesperson said, "Not that I know of."
Despite the return of O'Donnell and what most viewers agreed was a much-improved telecast over the previous year, the 1999-2000 Tony Awards proved a major ratings disappointment for CBS. Facing competition from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and the seventh and deciding game of the NBA Basketball Playhoffs, the Sunday night, June 4 telecast had a national rating of 6.2 with a 10 share. That was down from 1999's 7.0 / 12 share (which, in turn, was down 17 percent from the previous year).
Adding injury to the ratings insult, on the night of the Tony Awards, the American Theatre Wing's board chair (and former president) Isabelle Stevenson collapsed outside her home after the event and was rushed to the hospital for eight hours of surgery to repair a torn aorta. According to current President Roy Somlyo, Stevenson is "making slow and steady progress and well on the mend...with full recovery expected." Still, only time will tell when she's ready to resume her normal activities, and it's unclear how much involvement she'll have over the next season's Tonys. Somlyo says she's been told by physicians that she can resume "semi normal activities," including walking and going out, but she has yet to deal with any Wing or Tony-related business matters.
The Tonys did have some good news this year. According to the Keith Sherman press office, the National ratings for the public television hour received a 2.1 rating, up 50 percent from last year's 1.4 rating. In New York, the PBS Tony show scored a 5.48 rating -- up nearly 100 percent over the 1999 broadcast. (A single rating point represents 980,000 households, which this year translates into roughly 6 million homes taking in the Tonys. A share shows the percentage of televisions being used at the time.)
The low ratings for the CBS broadcast this year came as a surprise to Tony watchers, since the return of the show to Radio City Music Hall, with O'Donnell back as host, was seen as a way of turning around the 1999 dip. In 1996 B.R. (Before Rosie), the Tony rating was 8.3 with a 13 share. In 1997, the show leapt to an 11.2 rating and a 17 share, its best showing in 10 years. The following year, the Tonys registered a 10.3 rating and a 16 share.
To be fair, the Tonys faced some steep competition, including the wildly popular game show, "Who Wants to be a Millionnaire?" (9-10 PM EST) and the 7th and deciding game of the NBA Basketball Playoffs between the Portland Trail Blazers and the L.A. Lakers (Lakers won). "The X-Files" and a new episode of HBO's "Sex in the City" series were also likely to have pulled viewers away from the awards ceremony.
At the time, the New York Daily News quoted a CBS spokesperson as saying the low ratings wouldn't affect the network's decision to carry the show in future years: "There's good value to it. It's something that should never be lost."
As for the PBS broadcast, which wasn't seen in certain areas (such as San Francisco and Western Pennsylvania), overnight ratings averaged 2.1 with a 3 share. The top 6 markets had a combined overnight average 3.6 rating. New York was, of course, the highest-rated market, at 5.4 with an 8 share. Other major markets included L.A. (3.3 / 5 share), Las Vegas (3.5 / 5 share), Philadelphia (3.6 / 6 share), Chicago (2.2 / 3 share) and the regional Tony winner's neighbor, Salt Lake City (1.9 / 4 share).
-- By David Lefkowitz