Though all theatre-loving eyes will be fixed on the stage of Radio City Music Hall from 8-11 PM Sunday night, June 3, the following morning all eyes will turn to the overnights — that is, ratings for the Tony Awards' television broadcast. The event will be televised live on PBS (8-9 PM) and CBS (9-11 PM), with the PBS telecast officially titled "The First Ten Awards: Tonys 2001."
Awards for the CBS show have been sliding since the mid-1990s, causing much off-season finger-pointing between the American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers, which, as "Tony Award Productions" co-produce the event. Though the theatre community generally agreed that the 2000 Tony Awards ceremony was a significant improvement over the previous year, television ratings for the CBS national broadcast were the lowest in years.
Signs are more optimistic this time, however, as the season boasts not one but two hot musicals, The Full Monty and The Producers, the latter proving the biggest hype and excitement-generating show since The Lion King. With co-stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick co hosting the Tony Awards, and their show expected to take home double digit awards (out of 15 nominations), hopes are high that America's Producers fever will spill over into higher ratings.
The low national ratings for last year's event came as a suprise to Tony watchers, since the return of the show to Radio City Music Hall, with Rosie O'Donnell back as host, was seen as a way of turning around the previous annum's dip. 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.
The CBS national rating for last year's show was 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). A single rating point represented 980,000 households, which translated into roughly 6 million homes taking in the Tonys. A share shows the percentage of televisions being used at the time. 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.
This year's Tony broadcast competition is similar to last year's. If the Philadelphia 76ers don't beat the Milwaukee Bucs on Friday night, there'll be another seventh-and-deciding NBA playoff game, running from approx. 7:30-10 PM on NBC. If the 76'ers do win and take on the L.A. Lakers, NBC will air the first game of the Finals. While Fox will be offering an "X Files" repeat, ABC will again counter the Tonys with two episodes of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," followed by a repeat of "The Practice." More competition is likely to come from cable, where HBO opens the fourth season of its wildly popular "Sex in the City" with two episodes (9-10 PM). A new episode of "Six Feet Under" follows at ten. A draw for women viewers is also likely to be the Food Network's "Iron Chef 21st Century Battle," running 9-11 PM. On the movie front, TBS will be showing "Star Wars" followed by "Edward Scissorhands." Less likely to drain viewership are Nickelodeon's evening-long "Diff'rent Strokes" marathon, and the Learning Channel's "World's Weirdest Performers," which, according to TV Guide (June 2-8), boasts "a man [who] stuffs his body through a tennis racket."
While CBS and the Tony producers are looking for something of a resuscitation, PBS is likely hoping to build on last year's success. According to a Tony spokesperson from the Keith Sherman press office, the National ratings for the public television hour of the 2000 Tonys received a 2.1 rating, up 50 percent from the previous 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.
Interviewed by the New York Times (May 20), Jeff Folmsbee, co-executive producer of the PBS show, said of last year's broadcast, "We're now right up there with `Antiques Roadshow.' Look, if CBS ran a test pattern, they'd get a 3 rating. There's a built-in bigger audience for CBS... We give out ten awards live; they give out 12... People think, `Oh, it's PBS, it must be the minor awards, [but] we're not just showing you this song-and-dance number. We are showing the song-and-dance number and how it was designed from the choreographer's point of view, the director's point of view, the lighting designer's point of view, the costume designer's point of view. All these people had a say."
Regarding the CBS broadcast, Tonys managing producer Elizabeth McCann told the Times, "I think our ratings will be up this year. I'll be very surprised if there aren't... There should be a television show about Broadway every season, not just once a year."
— By David Lefkowitz