Television’s holiday season is all about filler. Sometimes that filler comes in the form of live holiday broadcasts, but more often it consists of reruns from years past.
Networks may not expect spectacular numbers during the holidays, but they certainly don’t want to waste a big production budget on a live program that ends up drawing the same amount of viewers in a key advertising demographic as a rerun of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
That’s exactly the situation CBS faced regarding the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual holiday-timed broadcast of an event that bestows lifetime achievement awards to those in the performing arts. The program, scheduled to air this year on December 30, is well-honored itself—it’s one of only three programs to win Emmys five years in a row—yet it cannot keep an audience. Other celebrity-soaked awards shows appearing on broadcast have continued to soar in the ratings by leaps and bounds (like the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Billboard Music Awards—the latter two of which are produced by Dick Clark Productions, which was recently owned by Dan Snyder). In 2013, the Kennedy Center Honors reached its lowest viewership point since 1991.
For Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein, a change needed to come. It resulted in a recent, high-profile dust-up when the show’s longtime producer, 82-year-old George Stevens Jr., announced on stage (and in close proximity to Rubenstein) that he had been forced out by the chairman, and that this year would be the last for himself and his son Michael, who is also part of The Stevens Company production team.
TNT announced shortly afterward that it planned to end its broadcasts of the annual charity program Christmas in Washington, which Stevens produced for 15 years, ostensibly because parent company Time Warner would no longer sponsor it. In recent years, the show — once a popular holiday tradition — has been bested in viewership (in that key 18-49 demographic) by bottom-barrel programming like TLC’s Brides of Beverly Hills.
Perhaps some of that failure has been due to the increasingly confounding celebrity appearances on Christmas in Washington, whose final TNT broadcast aired this past Friday. “Dr. Phil” McGraw hosted the show for several years, and the Backstreet Boys opened 2013’s show. Still, both it and the Kennedy Center Honors are structured similarly to competing awards shows and certain live holiday broadcasts. So is it Stevens’ aesthetic that is out of date when it comes to these shows, or are they simply examples of holiday traditions that have been, for whatever reason, unable resonate with current audiences?
But Stevens was obviously doing something right, as his trophy case and the shows’ early ratings demonstrate. Asked whether the Kennedy Center blamed Stevens for the ratings tumble, a spokesperson says the performing arts complex “is enormously grateful for the contributions George and his son Michael have made to the Honors over the years” and that the awards “have grown in stature over the past 37 years to become the preeminent recognition of the performing arts in America.” The center plans to “begin a search for an Honors producer that will build upon this strong foundation in the years to come,” the spokesperson says. TNT has not yet returned a request for comment.
Do the Kennedy Center Honors feel stodgy or inaccessible to Washington outsiders? Is Christmas in Washington simply lost on among more engaging cable programming? (Stevens has said he’s working on a partnership with a new broadcaster for that show, to be announced in the new year.) Perhaps Lucy Van Pelt summed up the cold, hard truth of the decision in A Charlie Brown Christmas, a holiday special that’s 47 years old and still going strong: “Look, Charlie Brown, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket.” And it’s one where Stevens has followed his falling ratings out of favor.