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Story of the Week: Rent Is the Least-Watched Live Musical Yet

Will the networks stop producing live musicals if Americans aren't watching them?

Brennin Hunt and Jordan Fisher starred in Rent on Fox.
(© Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

According to Nielsen, 3.5 million Americans tuned in to see Rent on Fox last Sunday, an impressive number…until you learn that the first live TV musical of its cohort, NBC's The Sound of Music, garnered 18.6 million viewers. That was in 2013, and the numbers have trended downward ever since, with no live musical on either Fox or NBC (the two networks currently producing them) ever breaking the record set by The Sound of Music Live!. Rent represents the newest low, breaking through the floor previously set in 2017 by A Christmas Story Live! (4.5 million viewers). By comparison, 6.3 million Americans tuned into last year's Tony Awards broadcast. We know there are millions of theater fans in America, so why aren't they watching? And will anyone produce these live TV musicals if the ratings death spiral continues?

The cast of Rent on Fox performs "La Vie Bohème".
(© Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

Was it just about Rent?
Rent is one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history, besting the original run of The Sound of Music by 3,680 performances. And it has been seen by millions in touring, regional, and amateur productions all over the world. Fox was surely banking on this built-in audience of Rentheads to turn out on Sunday, and many of them did.

Still, Rent carries with it the baggage of a flop film adaptation and divided opinion amongst Broadway fans. Even if you love Broadway, you may not have wanted to dedicate three hours of your Sunday night to Rent.

Significantly dampening the excitement of live TV was the fact that, due to Brennin Hunt's last-minute foot injury, only the final 15 minutes was actually broadcast live. Instead, audiences watched prerecorded footage of the dress rehearsal. Critics received this development with ambivalence, but it is unclear if this was a mitigating factor for viewers (or if they were even aware of it). What is clear is that Rent's problems were bigger than a broken foot.

Vanessa Hudgens starred in Rent on Fox.
(© Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

How important is casting?
It's debatable, but as we see every season on Broadway, people will show up for their favorite stars, so it only makes sense to cast live TV musicals with names that audiences will mark their calendars for. In smart casting seemingly calibrated to appeal to music fans of varying tastes and ages, NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert featured performances by John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and a 70-year-old Alice Cooper. That 2018 event reached 9.6 million viewers, more than double those of Rent, but still miles behind The Sound of Music Live!, which featured best-selling country artist Carrie Underwood. On this front, Rent was underwhelming: Despite what RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Valentina may think, the biggest star in Rent was Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame.

Ed Sullivan brought the Beatles into American homes through a series of live television broadcasts.
(© CBS Photo Archive)

What are people watching instead?
Television habits have changed since the days when a third of American households would tune in to The Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night. Like that legendary variety show, Rent easily beat out all of its Sunday night competition in the key demographic of adults under 50. But when you consider that it achieved that with only 3.5 million, when there are twice as many Americans as there were in Sullivan's heyday, you begin to see what's happening: People just aren't watching network TV like they used to.

Certainly, a lot of this has to do with the sprawl of television "content" onto multiple platforms, including cable, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and YouTube. Americans have more TV choices than ever, but they still have the same two eyes and 525,600 minutes (hopefully not all of which are dedicated to TV). While you're now much likelier to find a show that appeals to your specific interests, it also means that there are fewer instances when the whole country comes together to watch something at the same time. The ability to record shows or view them on demand has also contributed to this trend. Americans may be glued to their screens, but they're all watching different things.

This Sunday's Super Bowl will offer a telling statistic: Usually the most-watched television event of the year, it has nevertheless seen a steady decline in ratings since 2015 (a year that, like four of the last five, featured the New England Patriots — the Vanessa Hudgens of football teams).

Artwork for Hair Live! on NBC
(© NBC)

Is this the end of live TV musicals?
No. NBC has already scheduled Hair Live! for May 19. Diane Paulus (Waitress) will direct, with casting to be announced. Featuring a rock score with plenty of great solo numbers, I expect that the network is looking to cast more notable recording artists, the way it did with Jesus Christ Superstar.

UPDATE (02/04/2019): NBC has canceled Hair Live!

Fox has not announced its next live musical, but it may try a different direction: According to Fox Entertainment President Michael Thorn, the network is engaged in discussions with several artists about devising a brand new live musical around a preexisting song catalogue. This would be like Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia!, but it would originate on Fox. If it proves a big success, it could result in the most notable instance of a live TV musical being adapted for the stage since Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, which first appeared as a live CBS broadcast on March 31, 1957. Starring Julie Andrews, it reached an estimated 107 million viewers — a high-water mark for the live TV musical that will likely never be surpassed.