Show still advances cultural mission of promoting the arts

In the bottom-line terms of industry television, the annual Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards show is everyone’s favorite loser. Even at Channel 13, which for the sixth year will incorporate live coverage of the event into a one-hour backstage documentary that precedes the network show on CBS, the mere notion of making a buck off Broadway’s big night has them in stitches.

According to Jeff Folmsbee, executive producer of “The First 10 Awards: Tonys 2002,” “in the nonprofit world, this show isn’t even nonprofit — it’s negative profit. We do not break even in terms of production costs against revenue.”

Not that Folmsbee is griping. Even though Channel 13 does the show in the red, it advances PBS’ cultural mission of promoting the arts. “And in a way,” he adds, “we get our investment back by reaching our audience.”

Over at CBS, the mood is equally sanguine. “The Tonys attract a good audience,” says Jack Sussman, senior VP in charge of specials.

All the same, the usual tremors about flat ratings rumble through Broadway at Tony time. Managing producer Elizabeth I. McCann would like that ground to stop shaking. “Enough on the ratings!” she says.

“Too much is made of them by people who only pay attention to the Nielsens, which track households, instead of the total demographics. We can relax about the ratings because our demographics are remarkably strong and extremely pleasing to CBS. Only ‘West Wing’ attracts a higher percentage of upscale viewers.”

Sussman confirms, “The Tonys do attract a younger audience.”

Last year’s broadcast was up 32%, he says, in 18-49; 43% in 18-34; and, in its highest rating since 1998, up 33% in 25-54. “The index of this demographic is 32% higher than the typical TV-watching household.”

Having made her point, McCann also acknowledges, “The programming department would like a slightly more interesting program.”

That, indeed, is the rub. Most years, industry criticism of the show focuses on the presentations of straight plays. Last year, the taped segments of “Proof” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” drew the most complaints — and snide comments that the taping was done to accommodate the femme stars of the shows, who didn’t want to wait out their close-up moments while sitting in the Radio City audience in full stage makeup and costume.

Not true, says executive producer Gary Smith. “We always try to program it so people have time to go backstage and change. Rarely do we get trapped on that one.”

He says that people are more likely to insist on taping their segments, instead of giving a live performance, because the actors are just not comfortable doing a scene out of context.

Whatever. The word went out that CBS subsequently issued a directive that tape was out and all presentations had to be live.

Also not true, says Sussman. “The inference might be, yeah, we want as much live as possible — but is there a directive? Absolutely no.”

This year, the Tonys will present an exceptional challenge to its producers because the program will be heavy with straight plays. How much tap-dancing can you get, after all, from “The Crucible?”

There are tricks, says exec producer Folmsbee, for helping shows to clip well for television. “If there’s a nice, self-contained scene with maybe two characters, you’re golden. A scene with a father and son arguing about some universally identifiable point of conflict — you’re good with that.”

Otherwise, he advises shows to streamline the setup and keep it simple. Anything too subtle or complicated or stagy and you die at dawn.

Smith has a trick of his own for handling that other potential black hole, the one-person show. He won’t do them; at least not within the usual three-minute format.

“It’s too choppy and we just don’t have the time,” he says, explaining that he’s going for a combo segment that can showcase all of them.

Smith also promises to pull out all the stops on the show’s opening number, something that might even top the “42nd Street” tap extravaganza of last year.

“This year we’re working on a fairly meaningful tribute to Richard Rodgers’ 100th anniversary, which gives us an important reason for that opening number” as well as the motivation for segueing into a presentation from “Oklahoma!,” nominated for best musical revival. “We were lucky on that one,” he admits.

Fortune is with them in one other important regard. As for that old ratings dilemma, Smith remains positive: “Maybe we’ll do better this year because the Knicks are not in the playoffs.”

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