NEW YORK — Among TV’s torrent of awards shows, the yearly Tony telecast is historically a ratings also-ran.
In 2009, Broadway’s biggest night was seen by only 7.4 million people, reflecting an uptick of 19 per cent above the previous year, according to the Nielsen Co.
But even that boosted viewership was dwarfed by last year’s audiences for the American Music Awards, the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards, the Grammys, the Prime-Time Emmys, even the MTV Video Music Awards. And nearly 24 million viewers flocked to the 2009 Oscar broadcast.
Even the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards edged out the Tonys by some 200,000 fans of SpongeBob and electric-green slime.
This is nothing at which to be surprised, nor of which to be ashamed.
The 64th Annual Tony Awards, honouringtheatre professionals for distinguished achievement on Broadway, will be broadcast Sunday by CBS at 8 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT, Monday), originating live from Radio City Music Hall. (It will also be aired globally in 45 countries, according to the Tonys.)
The Tonys like to call it “the only national telecast that celebrates the theatre community.” Or you could call it a glimpse into a realm of show-biz glamour that viewers seldom encounter.
Not that the Tonycast won’t feature faces recognized far beyond Shubert Alley. The host is Sean Hayes, who everyone knows from TV’s “Will & Grace” and, as it happens, is a Tony nominee this year for best leading actor in a musical for “Promises, Promises.”
Musical performances from Tony-nominated revivals “La Cage aux Folles” with Kelsey Grammer and “A Little Night Music” with Catherine Zeta-Jones are on the bill.
The telecast will feature a special presentation of Tony-nominated plays and play revivals with appearances by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis from “Fences,” Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub from “Lend Me a Tenor,” Liev Schrieber and Scarlett Johansson from “A View from the Bridge,” and more.
Also scheduled to be on hand: “Glee” cast members Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison; Katie Holmes and Daniel Radcliffe; Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith; and the punk-rock band Green Day, whose 2004 best-selling album “American Idiot” was adapted into one of this year’s Tony-nominated musicals.
But star power can only get you so far in any awards show. Win-or-lose suspense is also part of the mix — typically.
So, sure, some Tonycast viewers will find themselves rooting for a favourite actor in a play, even sight unseen, thanks to that category’s robust field, packed with Washington, Schreiber, Alfred Molina (“Red”), Christopher Walken (“A Behanding in Spokane”) and Jude Law (“Hamlet”).
But few viewers will feel like they have a horse in the race for best play (waged between “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),” ”Next Fall,“ ”Red“ and ”Time Stands Still“), any more than there will be furious wagering across the country on which musical (”American Idiot,“ ”Memphis,“ ”Million Dollar Quartet“ or ”Fela!“ ) will score a Tony statuette.
Unlike any other TV awards show, the Tonys reveal the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat to a home audience that’s acquainted with only a few of the plays, personalities and performances in contention.
How could it be otherwise? Extreme example: Stephen Kunken (terrific but no household name) is nominated for best featured actor in the play “Enron,” which shuttered in early May after just 16 performances and 22 previews.
Imagine an Oscarcast playing to a nation where the nominated films had only played in a handful of Times Square movie houses and nowhere else. Or a Grammy Awards show where none of the viewers had had a chance to hear the songs.
The pressure will be on Sunday at the Tony Awards, and not just for people onsite in the hall who are hoping to hear their names called. The show, as every year, will be selling excitement and glitz to a national audience whose interest in live theatre may be limited at best.
How many viewers will be buying? In a world awash with pop culture available any time on countless devices, who will be tuning in Sunday to see Broadway go wide from its cozy theatre district?
Among them: Viewers who are game for a get-acquainted tour of the Great White Way this season. Sure, it’s an awards show, but there’s no need to be swept up in the Tony horse race. The winners and losers can take care of themselves.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org