Tony Awards Dive Into the Digital Stream

Second-screen content includes backstage segs, trivia in bid to pique interest of younger auds

Neil Patrick Harris Tonys Digital

Think the Tony Awards and “The Walking Dead” don’t have anything in common? You must only be watching the first screen.

This year the Tonys will launch a second-screen digital destination, with interactive content set to stream during the annual live kudocast on CBS — a measure other TV skeins, such as the AMC zombie hit and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” also have taken to cultivate fan enthusiasm beyond the TV screen.

Aimed at reaching younger auds on the mobile screens where they live, the Tonys’ digital push endeavors to combat a trend that has seen viewership for the kudocast decline in recent years, from 7.4 million viewers in 2009 to around 7 million in 2010 and 2011, and to 6 million last year. The 2013 edition, hosted again by Neil Patrick Harris, airs June 9.

But the digital initiative also takes into consideration an awards show that’s long been challenged by the tension between the kudocast’s nationwide footprint and the mostly local profile of the new productions being honored.

“One of the issues we have is that the Tonys are the beginning of a conversation with the national audience rather than the end of a conversation, which is what it is for all of us in the industry,”
says Heather A. Hitchens, exec director of the American Theater Wing, which co-presents the Tonys every year with the Broadway League.

Without the benefit of the multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns that movies get, legit titles usually require two things to achieve pop-culture prominence: longevity and a national touring production. A slew of Tony Awards doesn’t hurt, either.

But on the Tonycast itself, the nominated new shows of the season — this year including “Kinky Boots,” “Matilda” and “Pippin” — are, by necessity, being showcased before the general public outside of Gotham knows much about them.

That’s where the Tonys’ growing digital initiatives hope to come in. Earlier this year, the Tonys and IT partner IBM launched the Spotlight On series, which rounds up info and video spots about the season’s eligible shows in order to familiarize viewers with the titles in the running for the awards race prior to the Tonycast itself.

The second-screen content — developed with Echo, the platform behind such offerings for clients including NBC’s “Dateline” and the USA Network — will stream videos, photos, backstage segments, nominee trivia, polls and other tidbits as part of the awards-night conversation.

This year, too, the entire ceremony will be made available on iTunes alongside individual segs, for sale separately. There’ll also be a Google Hangout at the Tony dress rehearsal and a marketing campaign focused on the season’s family-friendly titles, supported by kid-oriented digital material, as well as the usual presences on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and GetGlue.

In the face of declining TV ratings, Tony organizers can console themselves with a recent study of the 2011-12 touring Broadway season that shows the Tonys are generating a broader reach in terms of ticket-buying habits, with 21% of patrons at road productions around the country reporting purchases influenced by Tony awards or noms — a stat that has grown from 7.8% in the 2005-06 season. And 11% of the study’s survey respondents added that a Tony performance seg contributed to the decision to buy.

That reflects a notable shift in Tony programming that showcases not just nominated productions but also the nationally recognized titles that auds can see concurrently on the road. Last year’s ceremony opener, for instance, was “The Book of Mormon,” which swept the Tonys the prior year and was just then heading out on tour.

“The Tony Awards (show) is our most important national outreach,” says Broadway League exec director Charlotte St. Martin. “If you look at the number of shows being recognized and publicized on the telecast, you see a greater brand building overall.”

The Tonys’ burgeoning digital initiatives aim to catch that growing awareness and expand on it further. The goal? To keep theater fans engaged throughout the year. Making theater trendy might be asking too much, but trending on Twitter is almost as good.