Monday, October 11, 2010

MDA cuts Labor Day Telethon to 6 hours, doesn't mention Jerry Lewis' continued hosting

From Phil Rosenthal's Tower Ticker blog for the Chicago Tribune. (Media dis&dat note: The MDA story also featured no photo of Jerry Lewis but instead had a picture of Telethon co-host Jann Carl.)

Labor Day Weekend won't be the same.

The Muscular Dystrophy Association said Oct. 8 that the telethon comedian Jerry Lewis has hosted annually since 1966 will run a scant six hours next September, less than one-third its customary 21 1/2 hour length.

A curious thing about MDA's more than 750-word news release on shortening the program is that it didn't mention Lewis until almost 450 words in, and that mention was a reference to his reunion with former performing partner Dean Martin that Frank Sinatra arranged for the 1976 telethon.

The news story MDA posted on its Web site didn't mention Lewis, 84, at all -- a real eye-opener, given his level of involvement with the telethon since its launch.

The 2010 MDA Telethon -- which ended with Lewis so overwhelmed by emotion that he nearly didn't get through his traditional closing number, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" (see video above) -- generated $58.9 million in pledges to support the fight against muscular dystrophy and ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. That was down from $60.4 million in 2009.

MDA said the streamlining of the Labor Day weekend telethon so it can air in an extended prime-time window of 6 p.m. to midnight is aimed at increasing both the fundraiser's potential audience and income.

"Our live, or tape-delayed Sunday broadcast with live local segments, will be even more attractive to stations that otherwise primarily would be running repeats from last season," MDA President and Chief Executive Gerald C. Weinberg, the telethon's executive producer, said in the announcement. "The talent we’ll be attracting will be even bigger, since every moment of our prime-time show will have a tremendous audience.”

A vestige of the era of limited TV choices, the telethon now competes for viewers with hundreds of other viewing options. And, even on a holiday weekend, it's a lot to ask today's TV stations to clear close to a full day of programming to air it.

In 44 years, Lewis' telethons are said to have raised more than $2.5 billion for "Jerry's Kids" and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

“There’s nothing like our telethon,” Lee Miller, the show's longtime producer, said in the release. “In 2010, some 65 top acts performed, including some amazing production numbers ... as well as top Broadway and Las Vegas show segments. Our 2011 prime-time focus should make it easier to fill every moment of the show with the best headline entertainment.”

A lot of folks who watch, however, do so at least in part because of Lewis's wild unpredictability in the odd hours of the broadcast. With its bid to improve the show, MDA would be wise to tread carefully.