If the show was good, why were ratings so low?

Talk about a Broadway buzz kill.

After last year’s raging success of a Tony show (everyone was so nervous about taking the show from Radio City to The Beacon – and then they realized that maybe a theater awards show would be better in an actual theater than in a Rockette-inhabited barn) this year the ratings took a post-Christmas-grosses-like nosedive, dropping a whopping 13%.

The LA Times reported that this was the least watched telecast since 1992.


But we’re not here to just bark and complain.  We’re here to figure out why.  (Or at least come up with some crazy theories.)

So why do I think we took a few steps back?  Here are three reasons why:

1.  There were no super stories.

2011 had Book of Mormon and Spider-Man eating up a lot of press ink all over the world.  I had people calling/emailing me that I hadn’t talked to in years asking me, “What’s up with that Spider-Man show?”  At every speaking engagement of mine last year, if it was going a little soft, I always knew I could loosen up the crowd with a quick Spider-Man joke.  Everyone knew about it.  And everyone was curious.  Same thing with the Mormon skit.  Talk about curious.  South Park + Mormons = what the @$%$?  Broadway is a business fueled by hits.  And when we’ve got ’em, all our boats rise.

2.  Was there enough advertising/marketing?

TV shows are like Broadway shows.  People don’t just come in droves on their own.  You’ve got to tell them to come.  And if  people don’t come, you have to ask yourself if you’re advertising enough, and to the right demo.  Could CBS promote it more?  Was there a pullback this year? (I honestly don’t know the answer to this question, but it deserves to be asked.)  Could we promote it more?  I don’t think we’re getting enough of the casual theatergoers to tune in . . . like how casual moviegoers tune into the Oscars.  And part of that reason may be that they just don’t know that it’s on, as simple as that sounds.

3.  We’re not creating new theatergoers.

I know, I know, I sound like a broken CD, but remember how our attendance stayed flat this year?   Do we really expect viewership of our very nichey inside-joke-filled award show to expand if we’re not expanding our audience?  People don’t watch the Tonys to fall in love with the theater.  They’re already in love.  They’ve already experienced it.  Then they tune in.  We’ve got to get more people seeing shows, and then they’ll watch the award show about the shows.

There could be a zillion other reasons why the ratings took a dive this year . . . some which we can control, and some which we can’t and/or shouldn’t.  Frankly, it’s probably a stew-like version of all of these reasons stirred together.  But even if there are a zillion reasons, we’ve got to identify at least a couple o’ thousand . . . because Broadway’s biggest night of the year is the Tony Awards.  It’s the biggest marketing weapon in our arsenal.  It’s a chance for us to reach people we can’t reach on our own, and that’s super important to the survival of what we do as an art form.

What other reasons do you think the show didn’t perform as well as previous years?


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  • Roger says:

    “People don’t watch the Tonys to fall in love with the theater.” YES YES YES x 10,000,000 – theater programs in public schools benefit everyone SUPPORT THEM.

  • Malini says:

    Honestly, Ken. The show was really boring. I don’t know if it’s because I am a PoG and have some insight now but the show felt like it was a big marketing plug for Broadway. I know that we want that but the love of theater only came through in the acceptance speeches. Why do theater if it’s about big tv, movie and singers getting awards? Theatergoers know which artists started in theater and continue to have a love for it. But if you are on the outside, what’s the big deal.

  • I can personally agree with the third point you made since this is my first time ever watching the Tony’s, simply because I fell in love with theater last year. But another reason why people might not have watched the Tony’s this year could be because there was a game on. I think. Not sure, but the NHL and NBA were definitely in Stanley Cup and Playoffs mode.

  • Patty says:

    I think part of the reason is, except for the revivals, even I-an insanely passionate musical theatre fan-was unfamiliar with the shows–especially ONCE. I just couldn’t stay interested. Also, what happened to the part where they recognize people they lost? Very strange. Thanks to NPH, and his genius as the host, I did watch until the end.

  • dawn says:

    I love, love, love Broadway. I actually loved the Tonys this year even though the only show I saw wasn’t even nominated (Godspell). For me, and I suspect many other out-of-state middle-class people, cost is the main reason I don’t go more often and see many more shows. I pick my shows very, very carefully because I know I can’t just go and see something on a whim. I have 3 tickets for Annie in November so I can bring 2 of my children. I would love to see all the winners from the Tonys – especially Porgy and Bess, but barring a lottery-win on my part, it will stay a dream.

  • Solange De Santis says:

    You can see a movie anywhere and you can see it for $11. Broadway isn’t very accessible to the same numbers of people and it costs way more than $11. Comes the day there are regular HD movie-theater broadcasts of Broadway shows (Saturday Night on Broadway!), we might see a significant boost in Tony night TV ratings.

  • J says:

    No one here is talking about the other options that were airing in competing Time Slots. The Season Finale of MAD MEN came on that night. I know INDUSTRY people who were tuning out to watch that.

    It sucks, but it’s the truth.

  • Mary Ann O'Rourke says:

    How much did we cut the live audience by moving to the Beacon? Fewer people attending the actual show = fewer people talking it up and telling their friends and families to watch…the Beacon is lovely but I think it should go back to Radio City…

    • J says:

      No way, the Beacon has been great for the Tony’s. The audience attending are all Industry related people who are talking to their friends and families regardless. That really doesn’t have much to do with it

  • Scott Kirschenbaum says:

    One of the major problems was the ordering of the production numbers–starting at the very beginning.

    The Mormon number was OK. NPH song was underwhelming. The Follies number was a disaster.

    The Tony producers should have put the big NEW musicals at the top of the show: Newsies and Once.

    And, for me–the shifting/swooping camera angles during most of the numbers was AWFUL–It was DIFFICULT to watch.

    Of course the “no name” winners mean less than nothing to the average viewer. Perhaps if there were clips of their perfomances (like the Oscars–just imagine seeing Judy Kaye swinging!!)

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    The show was definitely not promoted much. I had a hard time finding out when it was on, and I’m a fanatic. I tried to set my DVR for it a week out, and it didn’t find it listed! But it’s also true it was a weak year for musicals, and that is what people pay attention to.

  • Tom Altizer says:

    “It’s the economy, stupid!” $125 or more for an orchestra seat to see a drama and $135 or more for a musical…Broadway has become a luxury fewer and fewer people can afford. If you can’t pay to get in to see a show, who cares who wins awards for being in the show?

  • I have to say I was a little bored. I’m disappointed in myself in that respect, but the fact is I was. I think the season finale of Mad Men and the season premiere of True Blood had a lot to do with it. Our ticket sales happened to be off b about 20% that weekend, and I think it had a lot to do with the weather. It was gorgeous in the midwest.

  • I feel like the other big name options on television that night may have easily played a big hand in this.

    Here’s my question: when calculating ratings for weekly television shows, is online viewership considered? Because I couldn’t find the Tony’s on hulu or netflix the day after the awards show and I wonder if …maybe they should be. It’s all over YouTube, but some people might like to watch it later in its entirety even though they watched Mad Men live or are addicted to whichever sporting event(s) took place that night.

    I know awards shows are silly to watch later, but people do it. And if the point seems to be marketing theatre to people, whether in general or a specific show, I can’t see a reason not to.

  • KL Brisby says:

    The fact there were no super story lines transcending Broadway itself, a la SPIDERMAN and MORMON, was probably the biggest factor for this year’s change. Compound that with the fact that the absence of those story lines was not compensated for by increased advertising. I quite liked the show itself, though. The Tony’s have and kept their reputation for having the most intrinsically entertaining awards show out there. The other guys are catching up, however. Maybe the more relevant topic is, How can we help change things? Why yes, now that I ask, I DO have a couple of thoughts.

    1. Whatever happened to the Macy’s Parade appearances? These have become increasingly rare and uninspiring. Yeah, it’s a tough place to show off theater magic. Choose the number correctly. But there are millions of eyeballs there for the looking.

    2. Was there a discernible impact on Tony’s when the reality show casting GREASE leads preceded it? How about when American Idol Fantasia was in COLOR PURPLE? (Ask an intern.) Some of the best of the reality talent shows (SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE) create quasi celebrities, and some with pretty serious chops. Who all, apparently, vanish after the show runs. I wonder whether there are ways to work more symbiotically with other parts of the performing arts spectrum.

    Here’s hoping SMASH/”Bombshell” becomes a super story next year.

  • Sue says:

    Were ratings lower because so many people dvr’d the show (like I did) in order to FFwd over the commercials? And, was there any red carpet coverage with comments on the outfits? That’s why I watch the Oscars — the dresses.

  • John Rainwater says:

    I agree with everyone about the competing programming. It was pretty stiff. And that is sad, because I thought the show was very entertaining. And perhaps The Year of the Movie turned Musical didn’t appeal to a lot of folks. At least not this crop of movies turned into musicals. While I thought they were all interesting ideas conceptually, it was an odd assortment. Not having a Spiderman story or Glee actor performances couldn’t have helped, either. Still… for me, the show was just awesome. I thought it was about the best advertisement for going to NYC and seeing a Broadway show anyone could ask for. The production of the show (as always) is just so sharp and it flows so well. And the performances are so electric. It’s the freaking Tonys for heaven’s sake! (Perhaps the Oscars should consider that big name live performances are more entertaining than movie montage after movie montage.) The new season has some exciting titles. Can’t wait to get back to NYC!


    CBS had no major Hollywood or network television stars to promote being on the Tony Awards this year.

    Put a cheap can of cold beer in the hand of an average American, and sit them in front of a wide-screened TV ball game, and they couldn’t care less about anything else…… Point of Reference: Darth DICK Cheney was President for EIGHT LONG DISASTROUS YEARS during George W. Bush’s 2 terms…… Let’s see what’s on the TV now, Ma…the NHL Stanley Cup finals or the Antoinette Perry Awards….mmmmmmmmmmmmmm get me down one of those cold beers from the fridge, Ma !!!

    Rosie O’Donnell and Hugh Jackman brought in huge ratings when they hosted. Neil Patrick Harris is an amazing host, but just isn’t as big a national name draw as Rosie was then, and Hugh Jackman still is.

  • Darren says:

    I think it was the lack of promotion. People who don’t even go to Broadway shows but want to would watch if they knew it was on. Was it primarily promoted on CBS? How many people are watching regular TV now? There need to be new ways to promote the Tonys–to drama clubs, community theaters, and Facebook fans of theater, musicals and Broadway. Those are the Tony watchers.

  • Brian says:

    I think the poor ratings were primarily due to the lack of promotion. I did not see promotions about the Tonys much at all, and I actually thought that at the time (I wondered where they were or if they were even going to be aired anymore).

    NPH was genius but the opening number was not awe-inspiring, despite bringing Mormon into the mix. Unfortunately, it has to be an even bigger name star to get mainstream America to tune in.

  • Dave says:

    Agree with your first point about no big story angle. I live 2000 miles away, love theater but only been once to NYC so haven’t seen any of these productions. Unlike the Oscars where I have some first-hand opinions, I watch the Tonys to learn about new shows, see production numbers. I know I probably won’t see any of them until they come on tour. If it feels too much like I don’t belong because I’m an outsider, I’ll leave the show. NPH was excellent again, but people like me from outside the inner circle need a reason to watch. Sadly, figuratively (and literally) speaking, I can’t go to the Tonys – they have to come to me.

  • Well, you pose some difficult questions. Those questions reminds me of a legendary story that may have merit in this situation. Back in the 30’s someone got the idea to help the economy. They produced a “Monster Show For Relief”. The show began to tour to the principal cities across the country. The idea was to charge very high ticket prices (which only the still-rich could afford) and rack up huge grosses. All the proceeds went to the government. The show starred Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Burns & Allen, Jack Benny, Will Rogers and a host of others. Many variety acts gave their time in each city. It was a huge success. Then, one night in ???? city they only had 150 people in a 2500 seat theatre. After the show many of the stars, the managers, the press people all got together in Will Rogers suite. The heated discussion was all about why didn’t they pack the house like they had been doing in other cities. This conversation went on and on. Will Rogers got their attention. “Say, if I tell you why there was only 150 people tonight, will you call an end to this and let us all go to bed?” “Sure, sure, Will. Tell us why… “Well, it’s real simple, they didn’t want to come, …and only God himself knows why! The end and goodnight to ya’ all.” Your question doesn’t have an answer. Only speculation. But, it does fill up a blog.
    —S.J. Conners

  • Ken, please get the stats on what categories watched this year and which did not. That will be able to help us make more accurate guesses versus creating theories about the general greatness or failure of modern theater. My guess is that most people who did not watch this year did not watch because they felt they did their act of support for the theater last year, so this year they do not need to watch. Since it was a very good year to watch and had some hype around it, more people than usual made last year the year to watch so as a result more people than usual felt the need to not watch this year. The reason beneath this problem would reflect upon a general decline in the number of people who care about theater.

  • Queerbec says:

    Perhaps if Jim Parsons (familiar to a broad cross section of America) had been given an earlier, more prominent role and CBS promoted his participation, along with NPH. Plus Michael Emerson was essentially a NY actor before Lost. Couldn’t CBS have arranged for his participation? Also Andrew Garfield (why not have Andrew and Reeve together on stage, as the two Spidermen meet?–Marvel may have paid a fee). And why not one of America’s favorite action heroes–Liam Neeson? I know they don’t like to air some of the creative/technical awards, but damn it! costumes are very visual and some of the various casts in samples of the nominated designs could also pique interest in some of the shows. Unless of course we could find a way to offer a preview of “Broadway Bares” during the show (and Bernadette and Mary could do a brief Broadway Barks earlier in the show for the kiddies!) Makes one wonder how Alex and Hildy offered 25 years of Broadway musicals and had time for nominated highlights in one shows!!!!

  • Sharon Coleman says:

    If Broadway were really serious about cultivating a young, new audience, it would take heed of efforts such as the Michael Grandage Company which boasts actors such as Judi Dench, Jude Law and Daniel Radcliffe and promises to have more than 200 tickets per performance sold at $16 a pop. Not like our model where attendance stays level, prices soar and Broadway considers the season a success because more money as come in through the boxoffice.

  • Mike Vogel says:

    The opening number. Last year’s was a knockout, this year’s, meh. When I asked people if they watched the Tony Awards, the reply I got most was “I started watching, but…”

    Yep, they switched channels. The truth is, last year’s show was great, and it wasn’t only because “Mormon” was featured. This year’s was rather boring. I’m a playwright, and admit that I switched it off myself during that dreadful “Follies” number to watch Mad Men!

    Mike Vogel

  • Tony night was also the same night as the Washington DC Area Cappie Awards (the high school equivalent of the Tonys)– so every high school kid and their parents were at the Kennedy Center and not home watching. That counts for 2000 viewers 🙂

  • CC Turner says:


    It felt like the Tony’s were taken over by TV people not Broadway folks so it lost what makes live theater special. I usually tune into Tonys to see new Broadway shows coming so I can make plans to go to NYC and buy tickets. For most families these days planning one trip to NYC for the year is it.

    The host was not good. We want to see Broadway stars perform who we often don’t get to see. In the audience you had fabulous talent. Why didn’t Bernadette Peters sing? Even the presenters were mostly TV people. I would like to see the presenters be the rank and file kids currently on Broadway. For middle America its not about the big numbers or inside jokes its about a moment. A theater moment. A beautiful simple emotion expressed. Stop with the medleys of one line from each song . Take a page from the Sondheim 80th birthday special. Similiar forum and done brillantly. The finale will stay with me forever.

    I didn’t see a theater community at all in this show. Celebrate the pit orchestra musicians, lets see the costumers and prop guys. How about a taped piece about a THEATER or the life of a play. Tonys have been highjacked by talentless TV types and unfocused big numbers with all male casts.

    Whomever was the creative director of the show was OUT OF TOUCH. No more shows with 30 effeminate men dancing. Thats not a story.

    Bring Broadway back. Where is Elaine Stritch when we need her most?

  • john weiler says:

    It is absolutely unbearable to watch a tv show, such as this – with so many excruciating commercial breaks, featuring so many lame commercials.

  • Arnold Kuperstein says:

    It was a mediocre Broadway season and the nominees did not interest people to watch the show I personally thought that Neil Patrick Harris did as well as he could with the material he had to work with. Hard to think of a worst musical score competition in which two of the nominees were plays and the third contender was from a flop musical which did not last two months on Broadway. Hardly suspenseful that NEWSIES won that category. Finally with premium ticket prices Broadway is making attendance an elitist experience for people who only go once a year or decade to the theatre and disenfranchising theatre goers who attend the hits, misfires and flops because the best seats are saved for the high rollers who really do not care about the theatre. Why should these high rollers bother watching the Tony Awards? They are not really interested in the theatre and the producers of Broadway shows are only want to make a buck rather than build theatre devotees by respectful treatment and courteous service and access to prime seat locations at regular box office prices without the show being a bomb.

  • Eric Schussel says:

    This year, the awards show felt like a sales tool, so desperate to sell tickets, that many awards were given at commercial breaks in favor of musical numbers and play moments that few people cared about. It came off like a 3 hour commercial with theatre luminary presenters replaced by stars from other media. The effort to bring in newer and younger audiences has alienated the prime audience that has supported the industry forever. Finally, many buyers are from other countries with little interest in awards presentations.

  • Susan says:

    Good Morning Ken!

    I am heavily involved in community theater and broadway shows are my entertainment of choice.
    I am in Brooklyn.
    One of your points resonated with me: not being advertised enough. That hit home.
    days before. The NY Times barely covered The Tonys in the Arts & Leisure section.

    It was not advertised enough by the Tonys or CBS.

    Thanks and stay cool…

  • Rob Kass says:

    The American Theater Wing and the Tony’s should incorporate regional theaters or do something else to ‘localize’ the experience. People watch the Oscars because they’ve probably seen a few of the shows and are more invested into the competition of it all. If you haven’t been to NY and you haven’t seen any of the shows, then you don’t have a horse in the race. What about awarding touring companies or something? And I’m not talking about an honorary award to a regional theater – something local that has competition baked into it. And what about a cast recording Tony? Quick little bios from some of the nominees-talking about where they grew up, the first show they saw, their high school drama program…etc. You get the picture.

  • Jason Garton says:

    I think all of the above comments are correct in their own way. Yes, it was the season finale of Mad Men, well as the first episode of True Blood’s latest season, but there is another reason that has yet to be discussed, and that is Youtube. When it comes to the Tony Awards, Youtube is like a Tony Awards museum in itself. It is extremely easy to get onto Youtube and find whatever Tony Awards performances from any year one would want. I don’t think it’s enough to look at the ratings anymore, the number of people who will or have watched the performances and speeches on Youtube or elsewhere are not being accounted for. If one were to look at the number of views any given video for ‘Tony Awards 2012’ all of the videos are have over 10,000 views each, that has to account for something, right?

  • Rick Reynolds says:

    The production numbers were ridiculous. I realize the draw of Ricky Martin, but a scene from “Evita” in which she doesn’t sing? Kelli O’Hara was not shown to good advantage, which I would have thought impossible until now. “Newsies” and “Once” were fine, but too many short pieces of shows were a waste (sorry Ken, I know “Godspell” was one of them). Oddly enough I thought the best number was Raul Esparza’s from the defunct “Leap of Faith”!

    Instead of giving Hugh Jackman an award (from his wife!) have him sing a song and advertise it! The Grammys and Country Music Awards shows are now heavy on performances – quality performances – and get enthusiastic responses.

    I don’t care how much $$$ the cruise line pays in advertising: no road (or sea) companies doing “Hairspray” or anything else! If Off-Broadway isn’t allowed on the Tonys then the Atlantic Ocean shouldn’t be either.

    How about some Broadway vets doing a number from past shows they’ve been in, a la Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur doing “Bosom Buddies” from “Mame”? How about Angela and Tyne and Bernadette and Patti doing a mash-up from “Gypsy”?

    Speaking of Bernadette, who is the moron who decided her award should be presented off the telecast? They don’t nominate her for “Follies,” she agrees to come on anyway and introduce the “Follies” number (it didn’t work out of context), yet they don’t give her a minute on stage for all the charity work she’s done? PLEASE!!!!

    Where was Scarlett Johanssen? As a past winner she could have presented an award AND attracted some viewers.

    Neil Patrick Harris was sharp as always, but his best line – “The Tonys, also known as ’50 Shades of Gay'” – couldn’t compare with the great lyrics from last year’s show.

    Lastly, “The Book of Mormon” is a great show, but it should not have the opening spot. That should have been “Newsies” or Steve Kazee, again – heavily advertised. Promoting Kazee, Jackman, and Ricky Martin would have helped a lot.

  • andrew silvestri says:

    looking for investors for live broadway shows and concerts on web channell no one has this great ground floor chance ex producer major tv shows has all contections and major sponors

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