Saturday, July 4, 2015

It's Time For Theater To Have Its Own Network

I realize that it's been several weeks since "Broadway's Best" were honored.  But, as this Independence Day winds down, I have a modest proposal--well, maybe not so modest--for a declaration of independence, of sorts.  It's time for the Broadway League to declare the Tony Awards ceremony independent of CBS.

Why?  Because, for most of the past 20 years, the Tony broadcast, which CBS allegedly deems to be important in maintaining what's left of its Tiffany-network status, has been less and less about theater and more and more about ridiculous production numbers, stupid sight gags, and plugs for shows from previous or future seasons.  These intrusions into what is supposedly an event honoring the best of the most recent season on Broadway have had the effect of pushing much of that season off of the telecast altogether.

You may recall that, in 2014, the necrology was deleted from the broadcast altogether, raising an Internet-based outcry that the Tony folks tried to paper over by saying, well, there is an expanded version of the necrology on the Tony Web site.  But that just sounded to most of the protesters (including me) like the deceased heroes and heroines of the theater were somehow having their well-deserved recognition "shuffled off" to a less-desirable neighborhood.  This year, however, the Tony folks showed that they got the message; the necrology was not only restored to the broadcast, but was beautifully presented, culminating in all of the nominees and presenters singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Would that the rest of the broadcast lived up to that level of inspiration.  Instead, we were treated to the sight of Kristin Chenoweth coming on stage in an E.T. costume so that Alan Cumming could turn around and say "No, it's 'Fun Home,' not 'phone home.'"  Literally so funny I forgot to laugh, unlike the audience at Radio City Music Hall, which forced itself to laugh in an embarrassed way at the sight of two real stars being forced to make fools out of themselves.  Worse yet, this sort of non-humor was, as has been the case for the past 20-plus years, deemed more important for your viewing pleasure that most of the actual awards.  As Entertainment Weekly noted, history was made this year when the Tony for best musical score went to two women--and that history was reduced to a 30-second "Earlier this evening" segment.  Apparently, the E.T. sight gag meant more to CBS and its Tiffany reputation than showing history being made.

Well, CBS, if that's the way you're going to treat the theater, then to hell with you.  And, as far as I'm concerned, to hell with the Tony broadcast.

It's time for not only Broadway, but theater as a whole, to stop apologizing for the fact that somehow, in an era when entertainment is as close to everyone as their smart phones, people are still willing to spend significant amounts of money to sit in the dark with a group of total strangers and watch real people use words and movement to tell stories.  And it absolutely is time for the best-known event honoring theater in this country to stop letting a television network that pretends to care about its reputation sully both its reputation, and that of the theater, with a substandard telecast.

In short, it's time for the American theater community--Broadway, regional theater, even community theater--to have its own network.  A network that could either be cable-based, or Internet based.  A network that provided news, features, and special events--such as a Tony Awards program that skipped the lame attempts at mass entertainment, and actually focused on honoring the theater community and its best work.  A network sponsored by companies that value the theater audience, in part because, unlike CBS, they actually understand who composes that audience, and value the tastes and purchasing power.

To be sure, in order for such a venture to work, it may be necessary to make it a premium service, one that would require viewers to be paid subscribers, as is the case with HBO and Showtime.  But why should that stop this from happening?   Theater has never been more expensive than it is today, and yet people who love it still spend money on it.  Why couldn't those people be expected to spend a little more on a network that provided real value when it comes to something they cherish?

And it could provide real value in many ways.  Not only could it provide a Tony Awards presentation that didn't seem to be embarrassed by the actual Tony Awards, but it could also served as a resource in other ways.  It could be a source of information about local theater across the country, giving exposure to events and productions that might not receive it from local broadcast stations.  It could even create its own original programing, and market that programing through secondary channels such as DVDs and even broadcasts in movie theaters, along the lines of what the Metropolitan Opera is doing now.

It's time for America's theater community to come together with the understanding that no one but itself is going to stand up for its interests.  Form the American Theater Network now.  Not only for the sake of a better Tony telecast, but also for the sake of an artistic community that deserves its national place in the sun.

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