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Success of ‘Little Mermaid Live’ Hooks Networks on the Idea of Big Event Programming

The networks still want to be a part of your world, and the success last week of ABC’s “The Little Mermaid Live” was a reminder that they can — especially with the kind of appointment programming that the streamers still don’t do. 

The Little Mermaid Live” averaged 9 million viewers and a 2.6 rating among adults 18-49 in same-day ratings — numbers that aren’t huge but are remarkable in 2019, when fragmented audiences aren’t watching day-and-date TV like they used to. 

“It was quite a surprise,” says Katy Mullan, executive producer at Done+Dusted, which was behind the special. “There aren’t many of these around anymore. In this day and age, we need something to watch together.”  

And in a month where the industry is focused on the launches of direct-to-consumer services Apple Plus and Disney Plus, and preparing for the debut of several more entrants next year, that a special can break through like “Little Mermaid” is heartening for those looking to maintain broadcast relevancy.

“I think you’ll see more taking chances,” says ABC’s Rob Mills, senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late-night programming. “Even when you miss, it’s so much better to have a miss that everyone’s talking about. You want to keep them special, so we’re not doing them once a week. But we’re doing them more, which reminds people this is a place to have these shared cultural moments.”

The networks know this, of course, thanks to live sports coverage such as NFL games, which dominate ratings. But “appointment viewing still exists — it’s not just for sports,” Mullan says. The trend toward live TV specials first made a comeback earlier this decade with NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live” in 2013, and that success led to others on NBC and Fox. 

This spring, ABC found success with a twist on the formula: “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” re-enacted two classic Norman Lear sitcoms.

“The Little Mermaid Live” aired in November, a month the broadcast networks used to schedule with all sorts of specials and programming stunts. That’s when “sweeps” — the months that Nielsen measured demographic ratings for local markets — still mattered. But demo ratings are now regularly available in major markets, and the idea of sweeps has disappeared. 

“The networks for quite a while now have lacked showmanship,” laments former NBC and Fox scheduling head Preston Beckman, who’s now a media consultant. “When you do it, whether it’s something like this or how you package your regular programming, you often get rewarded for it.”

Mills agrees that the networks should be striving to do more specials and stunts, bringing back what used to be a hallmark of primetime. 

“The irony is, you need to do more of it in the streaming era because there’s so much more competition, but I feel like broadcasters used to do this much more in the ’70s and ’80s when there wasn’t so much competition,” he says. “It’s about getting that confidence back that we can be just as important as the streamers.”

It’s not just about specials, says Beckman, who points to how ABC turned its regular series into a weeklong event with its recent Cast From the Past stunt. The idea featured reunions and cameos by casts from classic TV shows and movies on current shows. It was reminiscent of the kind of gimmicks networks used to do more frequently.

“I give them credit for that,” he says. “Some of these things, it’s not like they require a tremendous amount of effort.”

Beckman believes the broadcast networks lost that showmanship as they began to chase after cable and go the prestige route. But Mills also notes that live specials aren’t cheap — and in the age of fractured audiences there’s less of a guarantee they’ll attract a big enough crowd.

“You can’t hold people captive the way you really could before,” Mills says. “It’s a little bit of fear in taking a big swing that could possibly cost you tens of millions of dollars to your bottom line.”

One season where networks are going all out is the holidays, which have become a much larger presence in primetime. Perhaps inspired by the success of cable networks and radio stations that go wall-to-wall Christmas, every broadcaster has stuffed its December lineup with holiday-themed limited series and specials — including a new edition of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” on ABC. “Your sales department wants that kind of stuff,” Beckman says. 

Mills and Mullan say the numbers for “The Little Mermaid Live” pretty much guarantee that more live Disney musicals are coming. “When this first started, the idea was that in success, we’ve got a library of 60-plus years of these animated classics,” Mills says. “It’s a no-brainer that we can do more of these.” 

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