The TV Column: Lisa de Moraes on Tony Awards Ratings

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The return of Angela Lansbury -- patron saint of CBS -- helped drive 7.5 million viewers to the network's Sunday broadcast of the 63rd annual Tony Awards. That's the trophy show's biggest audience in three years and second-biggest in the last five.

Lansbury won her fifth Tony for playing Madame Arcati, the several-sandwiches-short-of-a-picnic medium in Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit," and got one of the show's more touching ovations.

The three-hour orgy of excess opened with a montage of musicals, featuring Elton John, Dolly Parton, Liza Minnelli and the cast of "Hair." Yes, this show had something for everyone, including a great lesson for kiddies as to why it's so important to show up for rehearsals: "Rock of Love" star Bret Michaels nearly became the late "Rock of Love" star when a piece of the set descended from above, as planned, after his "Rock of Ages" number with his band Poison, only Michaels stuck around onstage a little too long to soak up the love from the audience and got smacked in the skull by the set and knocked flat. It may wind up being the most YouTubed Tony moment ever.

"His number gave 'headbanging' a whole new meaning!" show host Neil Patrick Harris joked after Michaels's unplanned pratfall. Of course, Harris is the star of CBS's youngest-skewing series, "How I Met Your Mother." Not coincidentally, the trophy show was up double digits among younger viewers.

Harris "attracts people across all demographics," CBS specials chief Jack Sussman told the TV Column yesterday after flying back to Los Angeles from Sunday's Radio City Music Hall trophy show. "He falls into that sexy/funny/smart category. . . . He's a great broadcast-host opportunity -- great theater credibility with a broadcast-audience following."

Even so, it's hard to figure how an awards show dominated by a musical about a miner's son who dreams of being a ballet dancer can attract a lot of viewers, even on broadcast TV. ("Billy Elliot" copped 10 wins Sunday -- just two shy of "The Producers' " record 12 wins in '01.)

But the Tonycast turned out to be Practically Perfect Counterprogramming to ABC's broadcast of the NBA Finals featuring the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic.

That's as opposed to the other broadcast networks, which went with the Roll Over Play Dead strategy Sunday night. For NBC that meant a rerun of its miniseries "The Last Templar," which hadn't done well in the ratings the first time around, either -- thus can it be said, "NBC has done it again!" CW, meanwhile, reran chick flick "Kiss the Bride" and an episode of CBS's decomposing drama "Jericho." Fox finished the night in second place among younger viewers, with "animation nation" repeats.

In addition to winning her "Blithe Spirit" Tony, Lansbury also presented the lifetime achievement award to composer Jerry Herman, who wrote "Mame" -- the musical that won Lansbury her first Tony. Lansbury was once the most popular player in CBS's prime time; her "Murder, She Wrote" clocked 264 episodes over 12 seasons and ruled Sunday nights. Lansbury played Jessica Fletcher, an author-sleuth living in the seemingly quaint but -- based on the mortality rate -- highly dangerous Cabot Cove.

CBS has been bucking a trend with its trophy shows recently. The Tony Awards is the third in a row that did better ratings than a year ago. The list also includes the Grammy Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards.

And, in case you missed Sunday's Tonycast, see Neil Patrick Harris's end-of-show musical recap here.

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