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Macy’s, NBC Work to Keep Thanksgiving Parade in Step With Modern Viewers

Al Roker usually takes to the streets of Manhattan to help viewers see what’s going on during NBC’s annual broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This year, he will take to a motorcycle.

“It will have more energy and also give viewers at home a little bit more insight into that parade,” says Doug Vaughan, executive vice president of special programs for NBC Entertainment, who supervises the network’s telecast. The “Today” fixture typically interviews celebrities on the parade’s sidelines, but in 2018, NBC wants him to “be motorized for the entire route” with a rig that will allow for 360-degree views, says Vaughan. “We hope he will be stopping along the way and talk to people watching along the sidelines, and handlers who are getting the balloons down and the bands marching down the street. He will be very mobile.”

You’d think NBC would have a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality for the event, which it has broadcast since 1952. With modern TV audiences increasingly accustomed to shorter program segments, more stimulus, multiple on-screen modules and new ways of watching video, the network has tinkered with its coverage in recent years. Yes, there are still character floats, Broadway musical numbers, obvious marketing tie-ins with sponsors and promotional appearances by NBC stars. But there has in recent years been a flurry of noticeable changes aimed at keeping the parade relevant for viewers.

“Television seems to suffer from, and enables, short attention spans. Besides many channels, online broadband, social media, texting and ever-present earbuds to compete with, producers incorporate these distractors within their show. Crawls, texts, pop-ups, promos, second-screens give people more options to see other things while not changing the channel,” says Robert Gordon, a veteran producer who has supervised sporting events, awards shows and telethons for networks including Cinemax and PBS. “Producers focus on pace, variety, personality, production values and second-screen options within the program so as to discourage a viewer from actually going to a second screen.”

At Macy’s the big question is “What is it that’s going to get people to turn on from the very beginning and keep watching from 9 a.m. to noon?” says Susan Tercero, executive producer of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, who leads the retailer’s management of the event.

One answer is more energy in the opening hour. Producers have put new emphasis on a pre-taped “cold open” segment in recent years, in the hopes that a polished opening number can help set an energetic tone for the tableau to come.  Viewers this year will see a young boy visit iconic New York City as he sings the opening number “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” The performance ends with a big live finish at the start of the parade route.

Last year, Macy’s kicked things off with a similar concept, launching the parade with “Dancing In The Street.”  The “huge choreographed number on 74th Street had an energy to it that I don’t think we’ve really seen in the past,” explains Tercero.

And Kelly Clarkson will turn in a live performance in the first hour, an idea that follows a 2017 appearance by Gwen Stefani. “It’s a way to bring star power into the parade in a different format,” says Tercero.

Even the opening float has gotten a makeover. Tom Turkey has been with the parade since 1971, and is the oldest of the floats in the event. But he has a new paint job, and more bells and whistles attached, says Tercero. “You are going to see a slicker version of him.”

But Macy’s and NBC also realize they need to do more for viewers who may not even consider sitting in front of the TV to watch the event. For two years, the two have partnered with Verizon to bring a raw feed of the parade to streaming-video aficionados. Fans can get a 360-degree view of the proceedings on YouTube thanks to special cameras deployed around the parade route.

No matter how radically viewing habits change, NBC and Macy’s can’t revamp the parade so much that it becomes unrecognizable, says Vaughan. “You want nostalgia, because a lot of people do tune in, and they want to see what they remember seeing when they were young,” he says. “But then you also want something new.”

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