With Risky ‘A Few Good Men’ Bet, NBC Doubles Down on Live

The live TV musical was a relic of broadcast’s past until NBC resuscitated it. Now, having announced plans for a live version of “A Few Good Men,” the network wants to do the same for drama.

NBC is betting that Aaron Sorkin’s straight play can, like the recent string of musicals the network adapted for TV, draw large swaths of viewers away from the DVR and to the live feed. But that’s far from a sure bet. With viewers continuing to drift away from the linear television schedule, NBC and other broadcasters are more reliant than ever on big payouts from such gambles.

“You are in a more competitive ad market than at any other time in the history of television, because of all the entertainment competition people have,” said Andy Hargreaves, senior research analyst for Pacific Crest Securities. “So I think what you’re seeing is networks trying to create events that can stand out in a more crowded environment.”

NBC created such an event with 2013’s “The Sound of Music Live,” which drew 18.6 million total viewers in Nielsen live-plus-same day numbers, more than the network had attracted to a non-sports program on a Thursday night since the “Frasier” finale in 2004. Follow-ups “Peter Pan Live” and “The Wiz Live” earned decent and much-better-than-decent numbers: 9.2 million and 11.5 million, respectively. Fox topped both in January with its own entry, “Grease Live,” which boasted 12.2 million.

Such numbers are gaudy in the current TV landscape. A study by Hub Entertainment Research last year found that 53% of all television viewing is time-shifted—an obstacle that Dr. Frasier Crane didn’t have to clear to reach tens of millions of live viewers. And while broadcasters have succeeded in pushing advertisers to buy against C3 and C7 ratings, which gauge three and seven days of delayed viewing, respectively, those measurements don’t count DVR viewers who skip commercials. That means heavily time-shifted programs are monetized less efficiently than those that are watched live.

Hence the push toward event programming — not just live musicals, but also recorded specials designed to encourage co-viewing and drive audiences to scheduled telecasts. NBC loaded its holiday season with such programs, including TV movie “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors” and an Adele concert special. Fox and ABC are following suit with respective remakes of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Dirty Dancing.”

But not every live program succeeds. Fox’s “The Passion,” an Easter-themed hybrid of live and pre-taped segments that aired March 20, drew only 6.6 million viewers  — just enough to finish third among broadcast offerings. “The Passion” targeted religious Christians, but failed to bring them out in numbers great enough to overcome the narrowness of the show’s appeal.

A Few Good Men” will face similar challenges. A teleplay about Navy JAG lawyers prosecuting a court martial doesn’t have the same co-viewing appeal of an R&B take on “The Wizard of Oz.” Though the running time will demand that the special premiere in the family viewing hour, few 8-year-olds will likely want to tune in. And while most event programming is supposed to be fun, from the Super Bowl to “Michael Bublé’s Christmas in Hollywood,” it’s worth remembering that “A Few Good Men,” with its “You want me on that wall” speech, deals with serious themes that resonate today.

That doesn’t mean that NBC won’t have opportunities to drum up interest. The 1993 film adaptation, also penned by Sorkin, was an Academy Award-nominated box office hit and will give NBC’s version instant brand recognition. And viewers could be curious to see how a new crop of actors fares in roles played by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson — just as they were for Carrie Underwood as Maria Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music Live.”

As more broadcasters jump onto the live musical bandwagon, Broadway’s songbook of family-friendly musicals may start to run dry. With live events now the hottest trend in the fight against the DVR, programmers are likely to order up every possible variation until they have exhausted the strategy.

Ultimately, the decision will be in viewers’ hands. “People have to want to watch,” Hargreaves said. “If they would prefer to watch a 3-day-old or 5-day-old or 365-day-old episode of some other show rather than your live performance, it’s not going to be worth that much.”

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