Monday, August 29, 2011

Labor Day Won't Be the Same

For 45 years watching The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon was what millions of families did on Labor Day. The Telethon was to Labor Day what fireworks were to the 4th of July and a turkey dinner to Thanksgiving.

This year the Muscular Dystrophy Association has decided to replace this holiday tradition with a television show on Labor Day Eve. The 6-hour program will still be called a telethon, but Jerry Lewis won't be there and it won't be live for most viewers unless MDA has different programs for each time zone. The program will start at 6 P.M. local time in each time zone and end at midnight. Perhaps even the Eastern Time Zone will get a taped broadcast.

I hope the new approach works, but I doubt that a 6-hour program can do what the event did.

The old telethon was an event with activities throughout the day. Families would turn the tv on when they got up to see how much money had been raised. They would see if there were any fund raising activities they wanted to participate in. Perhaps they would go to the Mall or take advantage of a special offer at a local restaurant.

In some homes kids would tell their parents "I want to go out and collect money for Jerry's Kids." After they collected the money their parents would take them to the tv station or other location to turn the money in and possibly be seen on television while they were doing it.

Many of today's parents had celebrated Labor Day in this manner since they were kids.

The daytime format allowed for people to participate in more fund raising events. The new format will limit the number of outside fund raising events because the program is so late in the day. Most of the program will be on after dark, making it difficult for people to decide what events to attend with their children. By the time they learn of the events on the program, it may be too late to get to the event and back home. It's unlikely children will be able to go out and collect money to take to the station.

A major advantage of the old time choice was that people who worked during the day didn't regularly watch any daytime programs so they didn't have to miss a favorite program to watch the telethon. This year's prime time program will have to convince viewers of regular programs like "60 Minutes" to watch the telethon instead. Other competition includes "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and, for Texans, a football game between Southern Methodist University and Texas A & M.

Many potential viewers attend church services on Sunday evening or engage in other evening activities. I suspect one reason the old telethon got so many pledges late in the telethon was due to those who had spent the weekend at the lake or beach returning home on Monday afternoon. People who are at the lake Sunday evening probably won't watch the telethon although they might record it.

The decision to go with a prime time variety show ignores the fate of prime time variety shows. They have trouble attracting viewers unless the show includes a contest like "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars". Even Jay Leno couldn't attract viewers in prime time. The telethon used to start in prime time on Sunday night, but, at least on WGN and KAKE (Wichita), the start had been broadcast on a delayed basis.

Although the stars listed on the website can qualify as superstars, even superstars have trouble attracting a broad audience in today's musical entertainment world which makes it difficult for variety shows to attract a large prime time audience. . The musical world is fractured into various genres. Paul McCartney is one of the few superstars left from the 60's when many singers had a broad popular appeal. Most who could appeal to a variety of audiences, like Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, are dead.

I don't know about other viewers, but one aspect I liked about the old long telethon was the opportunity to see performers who weren't likely to appear on other shows. We had the opportunity to hear or see new performers as well as the established performers.

For many of us the stars weren't the only reason to watch the old telethon. Those with MD who appeared over several years became like neighbors or members of the family. I remember a couple of kids on the Wichita telethon with a non-fatal form of MD who grew up in front of our eyes. I watch the WGN satellite station as well as the Wichita station to keep up with Romania's "perfect 10" gymnast Nadia Comaneci and her husband, American gymnast Bart Conner.

A major advantage of the old live format was the ability to show how much money had been raised. People could watch the amount build. That won't be possible with the new format because the show will be ending in the Eastern Time Zone long before it does in the Pacific Time Zone. One possible reason for late donations on the old telethon was due to concern it might not raise as much as the previous year and potential donors didn't want to disappoint Jerry.

The MDA Telethon became a national institution in large part because Jerry Lewis was one of the greatest entertainers of the mid-20th Century. Jamie Foxx is the only younger performer who is currently in the same class as Lewis, although some others might eventually achieve that status.

MDA would have been much better off if Lewis had headed the first program in the new format. Many would have watched just to see his last MDA appearance. Some would have donated more to provide him with a good send off. The failure to explain why Lewis isn't going to be on this year is likely to cause some to skip this year's telethon because many assume the worst when explanations aren't provided.

I suppose it's too late for local stations to decide to go ahead and have a local Labor Day telethon without the benefit of a national show, but if they can do so they should try to. Alternatively, they should consider starting their telethons early in the afternoon to encourage people to participate in fundraising events.

Local stations will have to do extensive advertising that emphasizes the new time. Regular viewers may ignore reminders to watch the show if the ads don't prominently state the show will be on Sunday night instead of being a Monday telethon. Frequent stories on newscasts would be desirable. Many viewers may not discover the new time until they turn the tv on late on Sunday night. Some who go to bed early on Sunday night may get up Monday morning and wonder why they can't find the telethon.

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