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Story of the Week: NBC Cuts Hair, Casting Doubt on the Future of Live TV Musicals

The hippies of Hair Live! never got a chance to let the sunshine in, but will they turn the lights off on TV musicals?

Diane Paulus, who was tapped to direct Hair Live! on NBC, previously directed Hair for Shakespeare in the Park in 2008.
(© Michal Daniel)

Just a week after Fox's not-so-live production of Rent garnered the lowest ratings of any TV musical mounted since 2013, NBC has given the chop to Hair Live!, which was set to air on Sunday, May 19. Presently, there are no upcoming live musicals scheduled for broadcast on any of the networks.

What was wrong with Hair?
While no official reason was given for the cancellation, it's easy to read between the lines of the joint statement issued by NBC Entertainment cochairmen Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks, who explained, "Since these shows are such enormous undertakings, we need titles that have a wide appeal..." This implies that Hair, which follows a group of hippies in Washington Square Park during the height of the Vietnam War, did not have the wide appeal of, say, The Sound of Music, which garnered 18.6 million viewers in 2013 (a high point that has yet to be surpassed).

Broadway fans have spent months speculating about how director Diane Paulus (who staged the successful Broadway revival of Hair) would deal with the aspects of the show that don't fit neatly on prime-time TV, like the inclusion of nudity, which so scandalized Broadway audiences in 1968 that it kept the show running for four years. Lyrically challenging songs like "Colored Spade" would have presented their own problems vis-à-vis the FCC. Altogether, Hair feels like a better fit for HBO or Netflix than the peacock.

Hair was also mussed by a perfect storm of competition: The evening of May 19th will see the series finale of Game of Thrones and the final night of performances for ABC's American Idol. If you had to choose between the three, which would you watch?

I wouldn't choose to watch any of them. Is that weird?
No. As I explained last week, Americans have more choices than ever when it comes to television, and the development of on-demand programming has fundamentally changed our viewing habits. Even the almighty Super Bowl, long the most-watched television event of the year, has been hemorrhaging viewers. Last Sunday's game returned the lowest ratings since 2008, falling below the psychologically significant goalpost of 100 million viewers. This could be attributed to a boring game and a dreadful halftime show, but it's not actually out of step with a downward trend that started in 2015.

Is this the end of live musicals on TV?
The official line is no. Telegdy and Cheeks of NBC contend, "Live musicals are a part of this network's DNA and we are committed to continuing that tradition with the right show at the right time." They hinted that they are currently in the process of acquiring the rights for the right show.

Michael Thorn of Fox said something similar a few weeks back, calling musical programming "just part of the DNA at Fox." Apparently, running a broadcast network disposes a person to pseudoscientific jargon.

In 2017, Jennifer Lopez was announced as the star of Bye Bye Birdie Live! Two years later, the production has yet to take place.
(© David Gordon)

Genetic sequencing aside, neither of the major networks that have produced live musicals in the last six years have announced dates for their next one. NBC has postponed indefinitely a production of Bye Bye Birdie starring Jennifer Lopez, and plans for a live broadcast of the non-musical A Few Good Men starring Alec Baldwin have failed to materialize.

Industry watchers are likely to see a connection between the departure of former NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt (who championed the live musicals) and their sudden banishment from the calendar. Certainly, when the shows are so elaborate to produce and the returns are so disappointing, there's little reason for the networks to keep doing them without someone at the helm pushing for the show to go on.