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Variety Show Glory Days of ‘Sonny and Cher’ Could be Long Gone

In the days of Ed Sullivan, the Smothers Brothers and Carol Burnett, the TV variety special stood tall as a regular feature of the broadcast schedule. But in recent years, they seem to have gone the way of the 13-channel universe — relics of the distant past.

Today, the occasional attempt to bring back the format hasn’t been very well rewarded with ratings, NBC’s “The Maya Rudolph Show” notwithstanding. That skit-based program met with mixed reviews but earned solid numbers (more than 7 million tuned in).

What viewers will more likely be served is something with a throughline, albeit with plenty of star power to stoke viewer interest, like NBC’s “Sound of Music Live!” It combined country music sensation Carrie Underwood with decorated Broadway vets Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti.

Social media certainly helped, turning the live events into bona-fide smashes, attracting nearly 19 million viewers while lighting up Twitter with traffic. The fun of chatting with others while a program is airing also seems to be pushing ratings, although ratings success does not equal Twitter success or vice versa.

“There’s no statistical link to social media driving a rating,” says Paul Telegdy, NBC’s president of alternative and latenight programming. “Social media is just a new outlet for the buzz.”

And “The Sound of Music”’s success is leading other networks to give that sort of programming a try, with Fox promising a three-hour live version of “Grease” in 2015 and NBC working on live productions of “Peter Pan” and “Music Man.”

“People obviously want this type of programming,” says Jack Sussman, CBS’ exec VP, specials. “Viewers want to participate in what’s going on.”

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