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July 4 fireworks gala loses its national pop

CBS pulls plug, as ratings fade. One local organizer says: Blame New York

The Boston Pops concert and fireworks show each July 4 brings more than a half-million people to the Charles River Esplanade. Ratings of the TV broadcast, however, have fallen.Bill Brett for The Boston Globe/File 2012

For the first time in more than 20 years, the July 4 Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular will not be televised nationally after the CBS Television Network declined to renew a contract with the show’s producers.

Instead, the performance will only appear locally on WBZ-TV, pushed out of the national market, a local organizer says, by a competing fireworks show in New York City. It marks a significant downsizing in the profile of the glitzy event — one that could make it harder to draw top stars as headliners — and comes just two months after the Marathon bombing drew the nation’s eyes to Boston.


“The rest of the country will not be able to see Boston in its finest,” said David Mugar, the show’s executive producer. “And that’s too bad — that’s a loss for the city and for our region.”

Each year, the Boston Pops concert and fireworks show brings more than a half-million people to the Charles River Esplanade, free of charge, and the broadcast was greatly valued as a way to market Boston’s appeal to the nation. Mugar said Saturday that CBS previously had signed two consecutive five-year contracts with the show, but declined to renew the contract for a third time after last year’s performance.

Ratings have flagged in recent years, he said. The broadcast company believes it will make more money showing reruns of its regular programming, he said.

“The CBS show of the Pops show does not draw the numbers it used to,” Mugar said. “Its ratings have not exactly plummeted but its ratings are way down from prior years.”

In a statement, CBS confirmed that the July 4 show would not air nationally this year, but provided no reason for the decision to end its relationship with the event.

“The Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular is a terrific annual event . . . celebrating the Fourth of July with such distinction,” the statement said. “Although the CBS Television Network will not broadcast the event, we are proud to broadcast it on our CBS owned station WBZ-TV in Boston.”


Mugar has his own theory on why the show found itself on CBS Television Network’s chopping block: competition with Macy’s.

The Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks show on NBC features music and fireworks on New York City’s Hudson River, and this year will feature music stars Usher, Mariah Carey, Nick Cannon, and Tim McGraw. Macy’s, Mugar said, had long sought to push the Boston Pops concert out of the number one spot in its 10-11 p.m. time slot.

“It’s Macy’s that did us in,” Mugar said. “We were a victim of our own success.”

Mugar said he believed the NBC’s decision several years ago to show its concert twice in a row — first during an earlier time slot, and again at the same time as the Boston Pops performance — was an effort to siphon off CBS’s viewers. And it seems to have worked. Last year, he said, the number of people who watched the Boston show fell by about 1 million viewers — 15 to 20 percent of the audience — knocking its ratings down to number two.

“That’s what happened with the July Fourth show,” Mugar said. “We were number one, Macy’s could not tolerate that, and Macy’s killed the Fourth of July on national television for Boston.”


Elina Kazan, a vice president at Macy’s, said the decision to replay the July 4 event in New York City was a natural consequence of the show’s growing audience.

“As our live fireworks show and audience have grown, so has the national broadcast and television viewing audience,” Kazan said in a statement. NBC, she continued, “has chosen to expand the broadcast from its original one-hour show into a longer entertainment format.”

An official at NBC Entertainment called Mugar’s allegations “completely untrue,” saying that the decision to air the show twice on the night of July 4 was made solely because of economic reasons.

“These shows are expensive to produce and we amortize the costs by doing an encore telecast,” the official wrote in an e-mail.

CBS viewers outside the Boston area will see a rerun of the crime drama “Person of Interest.”

WBZ-TV, the local CBS outlet, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Boston Pops show, which has in recent years featured A-list stars such as Jennifer Hudson and Martina McBride, will this year have a more local focus, with Susan Tedeschi and Ayla Brown as headliners.

The show’s big acts are usually not paid, Mugar said, but the production company could attract leading celebrities because of the chance to step onto a national stage. Without the network contract, it will be more difficult for the show to attract the same caliber of star.

Mugar said the lack of funding from CBS will also mean that the production will have to make do with fewer cameras and lights for the broadcast, though he maintained that the quality of the production on stage would be the same for people in the audience.


The show caught flak two years ago after producers superimposed images of Boston landmarks in front of the fireworks on the national broadcast. But the end of the national broadcast may provide some unexpected positive side-effects for the show, Mugar said. Because the show is not beholden to the CBS schedule, he said, it will start an hour earlier, which means that families will not need to stay up so late, and there will be more time for people to get home on the MBTA before it closes.

“It’s brought it back to roots in a sense,” Mugar said. “It’s back so it’s now just a local show, which is wonderful.”

But, Mugar maintained, it’s a loss for the Boston community and viewers nationwide who tuned in each July 4. Other than sporting events, he said, there is no better opportunity for the rest of the country to see Boston on TV.

The lack of a national television appearance may also leave other companies feeling short-changed: Last year, Liberty Mutual Insurance renewed its three-year sponsorship agreement with the Boston Pops fireworks display and concert, a contract that cost the company $8 million.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.