Skip to main content

'Sound of Music': NBC takes a ratings gamble with live show

By Jane Caffrey, CNN
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NBC faces a challenge with a live primetime production of "The Sound of Music"
  • A major broadcast network hasn't attempted a full-scale musical in years
  • NBC's challenge is to get viewers to watch live rather than via DVR or Hulu
  • The live element of surprise works in the network's favor

(CNN) -- With Thursday's debut of "The Sound of Music Live!," NBC just might resurrect the live musical broadcast.

In the 1950s, such productions were big television events, with viewers tuning in to see the likes of Julie Andrews performing in an enactment of "Cinderella," which CBS aired in 1957. Yet more than half a century has passed without any major broadcast network daring to mount a full-scale musical on live TV -- until NBC decided to embrace the challenge.

The result is a three-hour primetime production called "The Sound of Music Live!," a TV revival of the beloved story that originally graced the stage.

Country megastar Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer of "True Blood" have been cast in the iconic roles of Maria and Captain Von Trapp, and more than 600 kids came out to open casting calls for the Von Trapp children. The seven that were chosen committed to intense rehearsals that lasted for weeks prior to the massive television event, which airs December 5 at 8/7 Central.

"We've all worked so hard, we all just want to do the best we can and contribute to this legacy that is 'The Sound of Music,' " Underwood said in NBC's behind-the-scenes special, "The Making of The Sound of Music Live!"

NBC says the production will "retell the story for a whole new generation," and CNN's senior media correspondent Brian Stelter agrees that it may resonate with younger viewers.

"Even in this age of Netflix where everything's available on demand, I would love to know how many people out there haven't (seen the movie)," Stelter said. "I have a feeling those younger people in NBC's audience that haven't seen it yet will discover it for the first time."

"The Sound of Music" originally reached Broadway audiences in 1959, followed by the popular 1965 film starring Julie Andrews. Andrews recently said on "Larry King Now" that she stands behind Underwood, although she can relate to the mounting pressure.

"A live broadcast! My God, poor lady!" Andrews said.

Live television is always a gamble because, simply put, anything can happen.

"The idea of doing it live is what's daring about it," said New York Times media reporter Bill Carter. "They could have taped another version of this, but doing it live gives it a little frisson of excitement. What happens if the thing kind of goes wrong, you know? Now it's like seeing a Broadway show, staged, but they're only doing it once."

Stelter said NBC is banking on this element of surprise to bring in the ratings. "One of the reasons why viewers will tune in is to see if the microphones work, to see if everybody's ready, to see if all the sets are functioning," he said. "That kind of curiosity might help NBC."

Yet "The Sound of Music Live!" is up against competitive Thursday night programming, and NBC's challenge is to get people to tune in as the production unfolds rather than setting DVRs or using Hulu to watch the special later. Nonetheless, Stelter believes it's probably an experiment worth trying for the Peacock network.

"If it gets a lot of audience, they can go and do this again," Stelter said. "Of course in television, when something doesn't seem to succeed, everybody else gets afraid of doing it. So the worst scenario here is that it bombs and nobody else tries this again. Because I have a feeling if you try this a few times, one of them would breakthrough."

The Twittersphere and ratings numbers will reveal the success of "The Sound of Music Live!" In the meantime, the cast is relying on the massive scale of production and their six weeks of grinding rehearsals to prepare for Thursday's big show.

"We all know that coming up is this massive live performance that we can all be terrified about then," Moyer said in NBC's "The Making of Sound of Music Live!"

"Our first preview is our press night and our final night! There is going to be a moment where, you know, once you've said the lines they're gone forever."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT