PBS Joins CBS to Make Tony -- and TV -- History

News   PBS Joins CBS to Make Tony -- and TV -- History


For millions of people around the world, Broadway means New York City, and vice versa. That's one of Broadway's charms‹the glamour and the pulse of the City that Doesn't Sleep. But when it come time for the Tony Awards, Broadway's location smack dab in the middle of Manhattan poses a problem: How do you entice television viewers to watch an awards show when most of them haven't had the opportunity to see the competing nominees? Though the numbers from the nominated musicals are a big‹not to mention entertaining‹step towards bringing the TV audience up to speed on Broadway's newest hits, the lights of Broadway aren't always bright enough to shine across the Hudson River and throughout the rest of the country.

What television viewers have needed to fully enjoy the Tonys is a context and this year‹thanks to a ground-breaking venture between CBS and Thirteen/WNET‹they're going to get it. Not only will those who tune in be able to watch the live presentation of all of the major awards, but they will catch more than a glimpse of the stuff Broadway is made of and the people who make it happen. According to Peter Lund, president of CBS, "The expanded coverage will bring the magic of Broadway to a larger audience."

"Broadway '97: Launching the Tonys" begins 8 pm June 1 on PBS stations throughout the country. Produced by WNET/Thirteen, the flagship PBS station, this first hour will look back at the highlights of the 1996-97 season, with scenes from Broadway productions and interviews with designers, directors, actors‹the people who have dedicated their talents to making this past year magical. Coverage of celebrities arriving at Radio City Music Hall‹another first this year, and quite a departure from the legitimate Broadway theatres that usually house the awards‹will add to the glamour. Most exciting will be the live presentation of the awards for Best Direction, Score and Book of a Musical, Choreography, Lighting, Costume, Scenery and Orchestrations, all of which will be interspersed throughout "Broadway '97." This year, when the winners are announced, viewers everywhere will know who they are and what they did to earn the prestigious Tony Award.

"The PBS broadcast will provide the context," says Colby Kelly, PBS's Director of Corporate Communications. "The public across the country will get a much bigger view of the excitement of Broadway, which adds a whole other level of depth and insight into what goes into making theatre. That's what the Tonys celebrate."

Jac Venza, Director of Culture and Arts for PBS and Co-Executive Producer of "Broadway '97," concurs, "The biggest difference is that our approach in the hour is going to be a kind of portrait," Venza says, "an anatomy of Broadway shows. We'll be talking with the people who make theatre happen."

Like a progressive dinner party, where each course is served at a different home, this is a progressive Tony Awards telecast, and at 9 pm, CBS becomes the host. Celebrating their 20th anniversary of Tony broadcasts, the CBS team will be headed by executive producer Gary Smith and producer/director Walter C. Miller, both Tony Awards veterans. During the remaining two hours, all the acting awards will be presented, along with Best Play, Best Musical and Best Revivals. Of course, the CBS section will be chock full of special performances and highlights from the nominated musicals‹and thanks to "Broadway '97," this year's television audience will know what they're watching, armed with information that will enable them to enjoy the entertainment all the more.

Having struggled for many years to keep the show under two hours, Gary Smith welcomes the change. "It became absolutely necessary to find a creative way to deal with it." Smith sees the extra hour as a boon for the Tonys: no more awards given off camera, no more numbers cut so short they lose their impact, and no more winners rushing through their acceptance speeches during their moment of glory.

"What I'm looking forward to the most is the absolute joy and pleasure in not having to limit speeches," says Smith. "It's always bothered me but I never had a choice about it. There's still only a certain amount of time, but with the additional hour, it gives us the freedom to not have the same amount of pressure." In addition, Smith promises more production numbers during the expanded telecast.

The result: A great show. Says Leslie Moonves, President of CBS Entertainment, "The 51st annual Tony Awards will perhaps be the most entertaining celebration of theatre to date."

Adding cream to the custard is this year's hostess, Rosie O'Donnell. "It goes without saying that our host's down-to earth attitude and love for the theatre make her the perfect person to introduce the best of theatre to a whole new audience," says Moonves. To put it simply, Gary Smith says, "We couldn't have asked for a better host than Rosie, America's best friend."

In terms of cultural programming, America has no better friend or champion than PBS, so it's appropriate that WNET/Thirteen has come aboard to make the second half of the Tony's first century even better than the first 50 years. "Public television has always brought the best in the performing arts to America, so I expect this expanded coverage of Broadway and the Tonys to be a big hit with our viewers," says William F. Baker, President of WNET/Thirteen. According to Peter Lund, this year's two-network system merits the addition of another category to the Tony Awards: "There will be millions of additional Tony Award winners on Sunday, June 1‹the viewers of CBS and PBS." -- By Phil Geoffrey Bond

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