Television

Why are live TV musicals taking off?

The finale of “Grease: Live” on Fox.

Kevin Estrada/FOX

The finale of “Grease: Live” on Fox.

The networks are becoming hopelessly devoted to live musicals in prime time. And it’s not just because the TV biz has suddenly become possessed with a passion for jazz hands and sultry hip rolls.

This small wave – it started with NBC’s live “The Sound of Music” in 2013 and has continued through last night’s “Grease” on Fox – is actually a canny attempt to solve a very big problem. It’s a novel way to get ratings at a time when decent ratings are very hard to come by; the three-hour long “Grease” was a hit, with some 12.2 million viewers and a strong 4.3 rating about adults 18-49.

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The problem is that, increasingly, viewers watch TV shows whenever they want, on demand. Overall, network ratings have been dropping, which means their ad-dependent model is starting to fail. When it comes to entertainment on TV, the old-fashioned notion of “appointment viewing,” where people arranged their lives around the broadcast time of their favorite shows, and then sat through commercials, is fading away. Binge viewing, time shifting, anything that puts the control in our hands – they’re the enemies of ad-dependent TV outlets.

Only breaking news reports, sports events, and, to a lesser extent, reality show finales, can command live viewership and guarantee commercial viewers. And live musicals fit into that category, too, to some extent. They drive audiences to the time and channel, the old school electronic hearth. They create a sense of community around the TV.

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They carry the subliminal message of having tickets to go to the theater, with specific start times on that ticket.

Sure, with a live sports game or “American Idol” finale, a winner is revealed – and that’s not the case, obviously, with “Grease,” “The Wiz,” last year’s NBC holiday show, or “Peter Pan,” NBC’s 2014 production. There is a need to watch a live sporting event that “Grease” – one of the most gone-over musicals I can think of – surely doesn’t offer. But live entertainment nonetheless brings with it an entreaty to watch as appointment TV, an event-hood – especially when the live happening is a complicated production such as Fox’s “Grease,” where so much can possibly go wrong.

Live musicals are On Demand, in a way – but it’s the networks that are doing the demanding of us.

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