NBC’s live musicals have become annual events that draw even cable-cutters to live television. They also draw loads of free publicity before and after the broadcasts. Hairspray Live!, NBC’s latest offering, aired December 7 and got lower ratings than any other year; but it received plenty of kudos from critics and—even more importantly—attention from viewers.
While musicals used to be the purview of a small group of obsessive fans, they’re having a renaissance moment, according to the Press of Atlantic City, on stages, movie screens, and television. There are more musicals than ever on Broadway, while Fox’s seminal Glee showed that there was a mass audience for musicals.
NBC began its live musical tradition in December 2013 with The Sound of Music Live!, starring Carrie Underwood—and hit it big in the ratings, said The New York Times. The live Hairspray broadcast also featured footage of viewing parties around the country, according to Deadline, letting local station groups in on the act.
The live format enabled advertisers to get in on the action, too. NBC allowed Oreo and Toyota to do live, on-set commercials, while Reddi-wip’s spot was choreographed by the musical’s creative team and featured cast and crew members, according to The New York Times. Linda Yaccarino, NBC’s chair of ad sales and client partnerships, told the Times that there was more advertiser demand for this approach than the network could accommodate.
Hairspray did not do as well as some of NBC’s other live musicals. According to Nielsen data reported by AdWeek, the show averaged 8.92 million viewers, with 2.95 demographic rating among adults aged 18 to 49. Last year’s The Wiz Live! averaged 11.5 million live, same-day viewers and a 3.4 in the adult demographic, while the December 2014 broadcast of Peter Pan Live! averaged 9.21 million viewers and a 2.4.
Media Life Magazine called the viewership “solid,” noting that it was the network’s best in-season Wednesday average in two years. The live musical also improved NBC’s season-to-date average on the night by 77 percent. NBC is evidently pleased with this success: It plans to rebroadcast the show on December 26, according to Playbill. Maybe it will benefit from the holiday stupor, when those not hitting after-Christmas sales kick back and watch something fun.
Power of Live TV
NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt aims to make these live musicals traditional events. “What we’re finding is that the delayed viewing is very small. People want to watch as it’s happening,” he said. “We’ve lost a part of our culture to some degree, and we make these around the holidays for that very reason. It’s a time of the year that people want to come together and be with family and friends.” Part of a live musical’s appeal comes from what we call the “campfire effect;” primitive humans gathered around fires to tell stories, and we still have that urge today.
The massive multigenerational audiences that live musicals pull in are perfect for advertisers’ branding campaigns. Programmatic buying offers additional opportunities for using audience data to target different ads to different segments. For example, what if a national supermarket chain could show different ads to different regions of the country? Local station groups could attract some of those media dollars by crafting commercials in the same way auto dealerships do today.
In a world of fragmented media, live television broadcasts of major events remain a powerful way to bring people together. Scott Everingham, CEO of Small Holes Media, writes, “There is no better medium to communicate grand ideas, simple stories and touch lives.”