If Elvis were still alive today and wanted to mount another comeback special, he’d probably pass on NBC and head straight for VH1 — or maybe just post a few clips on YouTube.
For decades, superstar artists looking to juice their careers — from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to contempo country acts — turned to television. It was a quick and easy way to goose album sales or simply pocket some easy cash from networks hungry for star-power.
In the era of “American Idol,” you’d think all things music-related would be thriving on TV. But instead, as with so many other past network staples — telepics, kiddie shows, the Miss America pageant — the music concert special seems to be near extinction.
Madonna and Tony Bennett are the only two artists to attempt network specials this season. Both bombed big time for NBC, with the Material Mom’s flameout hurting the Peacock’s November sweeps standing.
With no other concert specials planned, this season will have the lowest tally of music specs in at least five years — if not ever.
That’s forcing labels to find more creative ways to use TV as a promotional tool, from booking artists on the network morning shows to getting more songs incorporated into series soundtracks.
Kudofests such as the Country Music Assn. Awards or Feb. 11’s star-packed Grammys have also become huge platforms for artists.
But when it comes to the traditional concert special, network insiders believe pop music may no longer be ready for primetime.
“Music tastes are so fragmented, it’s very difficult to garner a mass audience,” says ABC alternative/specials topper Andrea Wong. “You try, because these are big, big artists. But it’s hard.”
Observers believe “Idol” reaches a broad audience only because it’s “not really about music,” as one Big Four suit puts it. “It’s a great soap opera that has music as a thread.”
One theory for the off-key performance of music specials holds the Internet is to blame.
There’s been “a proliferation of music online,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of ad buyer Horizon Media. “(Specials) have lost their luster as music becomes more and more on-demand.”
Indeed, a TV special used to be the only way fans who couldn’t afford tickets to concerts could check out their favorite artists. Now, perfs are Webcast live or readily available on DVDs and even so-called “enhanced CDs” that include performance discs.
“The hourlong live perform-ance was about when you had an artist that needed to (sell) a record in a finite amount of time,” says an exec at a major label. “Those sessions now are going to AOL, iTunes, Yahoo and Napster. The music biz has gone on-demand, and that’s the expectation of young people.”
Others say the decline is sim-ply a reflection of larger woes within the music biz.
“As a music fan it’s disappoint-ing, but as a network programmer you have to be practical,” says one network exec. “There isn’t much in the music business these days that’s special enough to thrive and survive as a one-hour special.”
Cable has picked up some of the slack, but even it’s losing its appetite for concerts.
HBO, which once boasted at least one annual major megastar music event, hasn’t mounted a big concert in years. A&E’s “Live by Request” franchise also seems to be in hibernation.
Some programmers blame the labels, noting the industry has done nothing to curb costs on music specials.
While NBC execs declined to be interviewed for this story, insiders said Madonna’s reps wanted $5 million for the rights to her most recent concert tour.
Even in cases where sponsors help defray the cost of an event — as Target did with Tony Bennett’s NBC bash — low ratings make music tough to justify.
“If we’re going to spend $1 (million) or $2 million on something, I’d rather we spend it on one of our series,” says one network wag.
A spurt of successful music specials on CBS during the late 1990s and early 2000s — think Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Shania Twain — persuaded other nets to get into the act. While some did well, many bombed, including a series of duds in fall 2002.
Despite the poor track record for recent specials, network insid-ers still believe there might be room for the genre — on a limited basis.
Country music still has a “big tent” audience that attracts fans ages 8 to 80, making acts like Rascal Flatts a good candidate for a primetime showcase.
Likewise, it seems logical that a combination of superstars — maybe Elton John and Billy Joel — could draw a crowd, given the right marketing.
“They call them specials for a reason,” says one exec. “You have to pick your spots, and get the right artist at the right time with the right promotion. Even then, you’re still rolling the dice, but at least you’ve got a chance.”
Michael Learmonth in New York contributed to this report.