TV’s Holiday Chaos: Can ‘Sound of Music’ and Other Ambitious Shows Strike A Chord?

TV Analysis: Why the networks are putting a good foot forward in distracted December

TV's Holiday Chaos: Can 'Sound of

TV is hoping to use “How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria” to solve its ongoing problem with viewership.

The networks are serving up specials and program launches so fast and furious this month that TV is starting to serve up content a lot like Twitter does, with short bursts of something original capturing the collective fancy before another piece of video comes along and makes everyone forget about it, and so on.

Whatever happened to “peace on earth” as Christmas draws near?

The last few weeks have seen the requisite number of holiday specials, everything from the usual dose of Charlie Brown on ABC to NBC’s holiday-themed “Saturday Night Live” leftovers. Now the grid is filing up with ambitious fare that seems a little out of place in December. Sure, NBC’s “The Sound of Music” fits in well enough with an audience sated on Thanksgiving dinner and looking for more holiday goodies, but what to make of TNT’s pre-holiday rollout of six hours of the Frank Darabont project “Mob City?” Or A+E Networks’ triple-outlet distribution of four hours of “Bonnie & Clyde,” slated for Sunday and Monday on Lifetime, History and A&E?

There’s certainly plenty of reason to try to pump December, which has lower overall viewership than November, but certainly more than TV’s August doldrums. The month “is fairly ripe” to capture viewers, said Brian Hughes, senior veep and head of audience analysis at Magna Global, a media research agency owned by Interpublic Group. Hitting them with a quick burst of something new might do wonders. “People are looking at ‘Walking Dead,’ which airs in eight-episode bursts and seems to be doing quite well, and are trying to use the same model to get a surge in viewership,” he said.

TV really can’t allow viewers to get used to the idea that it has closed up shop, a tactic tied to calmer times when the nation had to be content with just three major networks and a handful of local stations. When summer and major holidays arrived, those outlets nearly shut down, stocking the airwaves with reruns and burnt pilots.

Hewing to that tradition has created a horrible situation for the broadcast networks in the summer, where cable rivals have established an original-programming beachhead and audiences have grown accustomed to the idea that “nothing is on.” CBS, ABC and others have begun to play more aggressively during the hot months – think “Under the Dome” and “Mistresses” – so why shouldn’t others take that lesson to heart as the holidays approach?

There’s also something to be said for giving die-hard viewers more of what they want: original programming. “Mob City” and “Sound of Music” are the kind of risk-taking endeavors that get fans tweeting for weeks before the shows debut and, as a result, tend to draw interest from people who might not normally give a fig about what’s airing on Lifetime on a Sunday night. A live version of “The Sound of Music” may have appealed to fans of Carrie Underwood and “American Idol” or Audra McDonald and Broadway – more so, perhaps, than what has been airing on NBC Thursday nights this season.

Are the networks’ investments paying off? “Mob City” debuted to 2.29 million viewers, fewer than TNT’s average for mainstream scripted series. By many accounts “The Sound of Music” is a barn-burner in that it nabbed an average of nearly 18.5 million viewers, and topped everything else on TV last night, including the tough-to-defeat “Big Bang Theory” on CBS.

Even so, at 18.5 million, the live broadcast falls short of the average number of viewers wooed by “NCIS” on CBS season to date as of December 1. That program has lured an average of 22.7 million viewers during that timeframe, according to Nielsen, while “Big Bang” has attracted an average of 21.6 million.

Given the investment NBC made in securing a Long Island soundstage, nabbing star producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, negotiating with Underwood, casting the Von Trapp kids, creating special commercials for Walmart, shouldn’t “Sound of Music” have done more? The 2004 finale of “Frasier,” for example, captured the fancy of nearly 22.5 million viewers.

Granted, nearly a decade has elapsed since that show was on the air and viewer habits have changed. They’re watching TV , or doing an approximation of same, in very different ways that don’t get immediately tallied by Nielsen.

The long-tail of DVR playback and VOD will likely add numbers to these initial performances, but the numbers suggest that the investment the networks are making in these bold ideas won’t always be a panacea for what ails the TV business. When you build a big tent to lure a big crowd that is inundated with entreaties to watch Christina Aguilera sing a song from “Hunger Games” on a live episode of “The Voice” (NBC, December 10), or newly colorized episodes of “I Love Lucy” (CBS, December 20) at the height of holiday gift buying and year-end reflection, well, you may have to be content with a smaller one that you might be able to get in September or May.