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'The Sound of Music' helps NBC sing once more

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How does network television solve a problem like redundancy? The trend of saturating popular culture with unnecessary remakes seemed to finally reach a fever pitch of protest when NBC announced plans to air a live production of “The Sound of Music,” starring country superstar Carrie Underwood. Despite repeated reminders the update would be following the original Broadway version and not the classic 1965 film adaptation, inevitable scoffing from devoted and disappointed fans flooded social media networks instantly after the first promotional material surfaced. Naturally, the bulk of the incredulous doubt was directed toward Underwood for daring to step in the iconic shoes of Julie Andrews, whose portrayal of postulant nun, crafty governess and eventual military wife Maria Von Trapp in Robert Wise’s Best Picture winner is widely considered untouchable territory.

The risky three-hour broadcast finally unveiled Dec. 5 to a flurry of real-time commentary across Twitter and the blogosphere, much of which focused on the entire production’s woeful lack of adequate pacing, costumes, set design and compelling character development. Of course, Underwood’s performance came under closest scrutiny, as her capable vocals couldn’t compensate for the otherwise cringe-worthy dialogue delivery and undetectable chemistry with co-star Stephen Moyer that kept this “Sound of Music” sadly off-key.

Cackling reviews aside, Nielsen numbers for the telecast, revealed yesterday, prove NBC could have really stumbled upon something good, at least from a business standpoint. More than 18 million people tuned in to “The Sound of Music” live, giving the network its best Thursday night ratings since the “Frasier” finale in 2004. These stats shattered even the most optimistic of predictions and arguably rendered the widespread criticism essentially moot, especially considering they didn’t include the elusive DVR audience researchers still struggle to measure accurately. Snickering naysayers have already compared the massive “Sound of Music” viewership to the publicity blitzkrieg Syfy experienced with campy hit “Sharknado” over the summer, and it’s a safe bet NBC will embrace a similar media strategy to navigate their own surprise success.

The likelihood for NBC and its competition to capitalize on the “Sound of Music” by plastering the airwaves with more contemporized classics and live events has skyrocketed to virtual inevitability, and rampant discussion concerning possible entries into the canon only fuels the speculation. An opportunity with this much commercial promise is likely one of a television executive’s few favorite things, and for NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt it’s something he’s had on his wish list for some time.

“We need to be in the event business,” Greenblatt told reporters at NBC’s summer press tour last July, when the network was singing an entirely different tune. The curtain had recently closed on underperforming Broadway soap “Smash,” making the very idea of restaging one of the most beloved musicals in history the very next season sound downright ludicrous. This fall, however, breakout hit “The Blacklist,” along with continued consistency from ratings darling “The Voice,” positioned NBC to promote “The Sound of Music” with more assurance than their earlier struggles would have allowed. The show’s executive producers, “Smash” alumni Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, wisely aligned with Greenblatt’s vision to try and circumvent contemporary viewers’ growing tendency to favor recorded programming by marketing this “Sound of Music” as the return of Must-See TV.

"I think networks are searching more and more for the things that will attract people to watching TV as it happens," Meron told the Los Angeles Times. "We've been looking at the direction of where appointment television was going and from our point of view it seemed the thing that was attracting the most eyeballs was live TV."

Featuring “American Idol” champ Underwood as leading lady was an undeniable stunt casting move, but the decision shrewdly mingled the production’s retro framework with society’s obsession over celebrity culture and reality shows. Perhaps most notably, it worked. The presence of Tony winners Laura Benanti, Christian Borle and Audra McDonald helped quiet the protests of “Sound of Music” purists unable to handle the show’s otherwise amateurish effort, but here’s hoping NBC now has the confidence to bank upon credible actors like these to attract the eyeballs for next time. After all, there absolutely will be a next time.

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