Broadway's Big Night: Handicapping The Tony Awards

Two things favor the Tony Awards this year, at least in theory: A red-hot musical with multiple nominations and no competition from the NBA Finals.

Whether or not a special Broadway-themed “Carpool Karaoke” led by this year’s Tony host, James Corden, will be an added draw remains to be seen. The same can be said for this year’s top-billed presenter, Barbra Streisand, who has agreed to make a rare appearance (for her) at the awards, airing Sunday night on CBS. 

The Tony Awards’ core audience is probably excited over the prospect of seeing her. But this group was going to tune in to the show anyway, so there’s no telling if the publicity surrounding her appearance will attract additional viewership. (That’s a polite way of saying it probably won’t.)



As nationally televised awards shows go, the Tonys have always been somewhat of an oddity. They’re in late spring, for one thing -- long after the so-called “awards season” has run its course (concluding with the Academy Awards, which were held this year on Feb. 28).

And unlike the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys (traditionally held at the outset of the fall TV season), the Tonys honor an art form that is not truly national in the way that movies, recordings and television are. While many successful Broadway shows spawn road companies and out-of-town productions in places like Las Vegas, a real Broadway show is still something a person has to go to New York to experience. 

Some of the pre-Tony publicity is pointing to “Hamilton” as a potential driver of viewership to this year’s Tony Awards telecast because of its many nominations, months and months of critical acclaim, and all of the word-of-mouth raves you’re hearing from your friends and co-workers who have seen it. But outside of New York, do enough people care about “Hamilton” or Broadway theater in general to flock to the Tonys?

Or more to the point, can the Tonys burst out of the 6 or 7 million-viewer range it’s been stuck in for years? Come to think of it, as I wrote that last sentence, I realized that an audience of 6-7 million for a prime-time show isn’t considered terrible anymore.

Still, the Tonys are a star-studded awards show -- and a “live” event, to boot. The audiences it has been getting in recent years would seem to fly in the face of the theory that glitzy awards shows with celebrities making red-carpet entrances are more or less sure things when it comes to TV ratings.

Last year’s telecast on CBS drew 6.46 million viewers. The year before that, the audience was 7.02 million. Last year’s dip was blamed, at least in part, on Game Two of the NBA Finals, which aired on ABC opposite the Tonys on CBS.

This year’s NBA Finals have no game scheduled this Sunday night, which could give the Tonys a boost. On the other hand, that calculation only holds up if one supposes that the audiences for basketball and Broadway are similar. Were millions having a tough time choosing between last year’s NBA face-off between the Warriors and Cavaliers, and New York’s annual awards gala for Broadway plays and musicals? [Insert your answer here.]

And is James Corden a draw? He’s the British entertainer -- no stranger to the theater stage -- who is the host of “The Late, Late Show” on CBS. His show’s most popular feature is “Carpool Karaoke,” in which he sings a duet with a celebrity guest while riding in a car. These things draw major traffic on YouTube.

CBS seems very happy with Corden, and sometimes one wonders if they’re happier with him than with Stephen Colbert. For example, Colbert’s song-and-dance skills are second to none, and he would have made a great Tony host. And his “Late Show” (which happens to be based in New York, on Broadway, no less) could use a prime-time boost as much as Corden’s.

Such are the mysteries of network television. All of these years spent writing about it, and I still can’t figure it out.

“The 70th Annual Tony Awards” air Sunday (June 12) starting at 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS. 

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