Luring a fickle TV viewing public

Show hoping Police reunion will hook viewers

The Grammy Awards can’t wait to hit the right note with television viewers.

“We try year in and year out to hammer people at 8:01 and get them to believe, ‘Oh, my god. Look at what just happened. I can’t go anywhere now,'” says Jack Sussman, CBS exec VP of specials, music and live events.

Madonna in a sparkling, skintight leotard performing with the Gorillaz in an animated 3-D hologram was last year’s hook. And Sunday night’s first segment again promises to be worthy of water-cooler talk on Monday morning — a reunion of the Police, 23 years after the band broke up.

Grand openings aside, when it comes to ratings, the Grammys have been an up-and-down proposition during the past decade — a fact that might be obscured if one compares only last year’s number of viewers (17 million) with those from 1997 (19.2 million). In between, the show climbed ratings peaks in 2000 (27.8 million), 2001 (26.7 million) and 2004 (26.3 million), for example.

Lately, though, competition has undercut music’s big night. Last year, with the Grammys on a Wednesday, it was Fox’s “American Idol” juggernaut that did the damage (17.01 million viewers switched on the Grammys), and in 2005, the show took a hit (18.8 million) from ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

Another factor that can affect ratings is the popularity of the nominated songs and performers. The Grammys’ zenith during the past decade came when Carlos Santana was honored for his “Supernatural” album, and he took home a record-tying eight trophies in 2000.

A popular host also can help lift the numbers. Kelsey Grammer, Rosie O’Donnell and Jon Stewart all presided over Grammycasts with 24.9 million or more viewers during the past decade.

If the variables appear numerous, and viewer patterns fickle, Sussman has his theories about the mixture of highs and lows. “A lot of that has to do with what’s going on during any given year — current events, what the competition is from a programming standpoint, whether there’s a great story to tell (on the Grammys) that people get sucked into,” he says. “You just have to go in every year and take your best shot.”

Those factors actually apply to the ratings of most kudocasts, according to NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf.

“There are so many things that go into the mix,” he says. “It’s not like there’s any single thing you can gravitate to. There’s a surprise factor (with the ratings). It’s just like opening up the envelope to see who’s going to win the award. When you get the rating the next morning, there’s a big surprise.”

NBC was pleased with the 20 million viewers who tuned in Jan. 15 for the Golden Globes, making it the highest-rated HFPA bash in three years, despite airing opposite the second night of a two-part “24” season bow on Fox.

“There’s still something special about these (awards) franchises,” Metcalf says. “They feel like big sporting events because you have to see them live. There are winners, losers and results.”

And also like sports, there are great plays worthy of the highlight reels. At the Grammys, it’s been Aretha Franklin pinch-hitting at the last minute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti on one of the opera great’s signature songs (in 1998), Elton John performing a duet with rapper Eminem that drew protests outside Staples Center (in 2001), the reunion of Simon & Garfunkel more than three decades after they broke up (2003), Prince and Beyonce covering “Purple Rain” and several of his other hits (2004), or Paul McCartney delivering a fiery rendition of “Helter Skelter” during his first-ever performance at the kudocast (2006).

“That’s what viewers connect with — those great, great unexpected live moments of television when artists rise to the very top of their game,” Sussman says. “We challenge artists to come out onto the stage and do something that they might not have done before.”

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