As NBC readies “Hairspray” for its next musical production and FOX prepares to air “Grease: Live” on January 31, the broadcast networks’ latest attempt to keep cord-cutters—or “cord-cobblers,” as Showtime’s David Nevins put it at the Television Critics Association’s biannual press tour—from wielding their proverbial knives is gaining steam: it appears, at least for now, that the live TV musical is here to stay.
If there’s any real surprise, in fact, it’s that the other networks haven’t yet dived head-first into the form. NBC’s competitors might once have considered the extraordinary ratings of “The Sound of Music Live” (2013) a fluke—18.6 million live viewers, numbers rare outside of sporting events and awards ceremonies these days—but after a bit of the stumble with “Peter Pan Live,” the network’s “The Wiz Live” (which was also warmly received by critics) drew 11.5 million live viewers in December. At the very least, with “Hairspray,” NBC is doubling down, and it’s bringing on the talent to match: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced the 2007 movie version starring John Travolta, in addition to “Chicago” and two live Oscar telecasts.
The live TV musical, with its promise of familiar songs, deliciously cheesy—or cringeworthy—moments, and the commentariat tweeting away in real time, updates the origins of the medium for a digital age. The advantage for the networks is that a one-off production becomes “event television,” in a way that Neil Patrick Harris’ short-lived variety hour, “Best Time Ever,” did not. It’s the anticipation of social engagement, the warm glow of tuning in to the same station at the same time, that seems to attract audiences. It’s all too rare, in the age of peak TV, for the question around the watercooler the next morning (or indeed the metaphorical social media “watercooler,” the same night), to be not “Have you seen… ?” but “Did you see… ?”
If NBC continues to rake in solid ratings, and by extension advertising dollars, from the craze for TV musicals, expect the other networks to follow suit.