When NBC set out to revive the long-ago practice of presenting live musicals on television, expectations were very low as audience tastes and viewership habits had changed significantly — making it difficult to ascertain any level of success for the presentation.
So it was decided that the still-popular, family friendly The Sound of Music — the original movie musical of which NBC still aired annually — would get the first such treatment with country star Carrie Underwood stepping into Julie Andrews’ legendary role. NBC preempted its low-rated Thursday night lineup of Community, Parks and Recreation, Sean Saves the World, The Michael J. Fox Show and Parenthood on December 5, 2013 to go where no network had gone before since ABC with Cinderella in 1957 (which, interestingly, starred Andrews).
The result was a very unexpected viewership of 18.47 million — topping the night opposite originals on CBS (The Big Bang Theory, The Millers, The Crazy Ones, Two and a Half Men and Elementary), ABC (Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal), FOX (The X-Factor and Glee) and the CW (The Vampire Diaries and Reign).
NBC immediately went into a search for their next live musical presentation, which was to be Peter Pan — starring the lesser-known Allison Williams. Airing on Thursday, December 4, 2014 (preempting The Biggest Loser, Bad Judge, A to Z and Parenthood), Peter Pan drew 9.13 million viewers — about half the that of Sound of Music the previous year. Perhaps it was the choice of musical, the choice of lead and/or the competition, but whereas The Sound of Music topped the night, Peter Pan came in fourth behind a rerun of The Big Bang Theory, an original Mom and an original Two and a Half Men — all on CBS.
Regardless, NBC decided to move ahead with a third live musical — The Wiz. For the first time, producers went with a newcomer named Shanice Williams, but packed the rest of the cast with familiar names such as Queen Latifah, David Alan Grier and Mary J. Blige. Airing on Thursday, December 3, 2015 (preempting Heroes: Reborn, The Blacklist and encore programming), The Wiz drew 11.14 million viewers — coming in second behind football. This was a 22% improvement on Peter Pan, but still 40% below the now-unreachable Sound of Music.
On January 31, 2016, FOX entered the live musical arena with Grease starring Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough and Vanessa Hudgens. Unlike NBC’s first three efforts, which each aired on Thursdays, FOX aired their first musical on a Sunday (from 7 to 10 as opposed to 8 to 11 since the 10pm hour is programmed by FOX affiliates and not the network) — preempting its low-rated lineup of The Simpsons encores, Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons, Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life, Family Guy and Bordertown). One-upping NBC in its direction and execution, Grease drew 12.18 million viewers (a respective 33% and 9% above each of NBC’s previous two efforts, but still 35% below that of its still-unreachable first one) to top the night opposite originals on CBS (60 Minutes, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife and CSI: Cyber), originals on NBC (Dateline and a special American Ninja Warrior) and reruns on ABC (America’s Funniest Home Videos, Marvel’s Agent Carter) save for two original episodes of Galavant.
NBC’s most recent live musical — Hairspray — aired on December 7, 2016. Because NBC is now airing football on Thursday nights, Hairspray is the first of the live musicals to air on a Wednesday (preempting Blindspot, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Chicago PD). Once again going with a newcomer (Maddie Baillio) in the starring role but packing the rest of the cast with familiar names (Martin Short, Kristen Chenowith, Jennifer Hudson, Derek Hough, Ariana Grande and Harvey Fierstein), Hairspray drew 9.05 million viewers. Though 26% below Grease (the last live musical), 19% below The Wiz (NBC’s last live musical) and all of 80,000 viewers below Peter Pan for a new viewership low, Hairspray still won the night opposite originals on ABC (The Goldbergs, Speechless, black-ish and Designated Survivor) save for a rerun of Modern Family, originals on CBS (Survivor, Criminal Minds and Code Black), originals on FOX (Empire and Lethal Weapon) and originals on the CW (Arrow and Frequency).
NBC already has their next live musical planned for next year — Bye Bye Birdie starring Jennifer Lopez (reverting back to a name star). Though not telecast live, Birdie was previously adapted for TV by ABC in 1995.
As for ratings predictions: the average viewership for the last three live musicals since The Sound of Music is 9.77 million viewers. Factoring in The Sound of Music, the average rises to 11.95. While we can’t expect Sound of Music numbers again because then you had a marquee name attached to a fresh take (live on TV) on a very popular musical with annual airings.
Now you have a marquee name attached to a fresh take (live on TV) on a go-to musical for high school theater groups. So we should expect viewership to come in around NBC’s average for its live musical presentations and the Grease actuals.
Anyone else care to weigh in? Place your bets now.