No doubt the news that NBC is hiring Neil Patrick Harris to host a variety show was greeted by everyone under 35 with the response, "What's a variety show?"
Long ago, when there were only three channels and programmers crafted series that were meant to have universal appeal, the variety show was a TV staple. Shows blending music, comedy, dance, drama, juggling, puppetry, ventriloquism, and anything else you could think of were the networks' way of providing something for everyone. If you didn't like an act, wait five minutes, and something more to your taste would come along.
What's more, you didn't have to have any particular talent to host a variety show. Sure, a lot of hosts of 1970s variety shows were musicians -- Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Sonny and Cher, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Donny and Marie Osmond. Some of them could even tell jokes. And then there was Ed Sullivan, a man who had a stiff on-camera presence and no discernible talent except for the ability to spot talent in others, and yet, throughout the 1950s and '60s, he was the undisputed king of the variety show.
The variety show died a slow, painful death in the late 1970s, as tastes fractured and networks started chasing niche demographics instead of broad ones. In fact, the network that contributed most to the format's demise is the one trying to revive it now: NBC. "Saturday Night Live" started out on that network in 1975 as a variety show but quickly abandoned its stand-up comics, multiple musical acts, and prehistoric Muppets for the now-familiar format of a single guest host and single musical act alongside the sketch comedy offerings from the regular cast. In 1977, a variety show hosted by Richard Pryor proved too controversial for NBC, which yanked the show after a few episodes. By 1980, when NBC launched the short-lived "Pink Lady and Jeff" (hosted by comic Jeff Altman and a female Japanese duo that spoke little English), it was clear that variety was dead.
Since then, the closest thing we've had to variety is amateur talent competition shows, from "Solid Gold" and "Star Search" in the '80s to "America's Got Talent" today. And even the most popular talent shows, like "American Idol" and "The Voice," draw only a fraction of the number of viewers that the 1960s and '70s variety shows did.
The problem, then, is not Harris, whose old-school song-and-dance talents are universally recognized. Rather, it's with the idea that one show can still please everybody. There's no such thing as consensus entertainment anymore, and long gone are the days when Sullivan could get teens to sit still through Topo Gigio and Señor Wences while they waited for the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Today, there are too many other options clamoring for our attention, and the moment one act on a variety show bores us, we'll click to one of 500 other channels or stream a movie or play a video game.
It's easy to see why the networks would want such a show to work. Other than sports events and awards shows, there's little that attracts a truly mass audience anymore. But recent efforts to revive the variety format haven't been promising. Recent one-shot attempts by stars as funny and talented as Rosie O'Donnell and Maya Rudolph, both on NBC, failed to make a splash.
Even NBC seems to realize how risky a venture this is, as they've given Harris a commitment for only 10 episodes. The network seems to recognize that hiring a star of Harris' caliber, along with all the other talent they'll need to make each episode work -- and a franchise fee of $2.5 million per episode to production company ITV -- could be an expensive gamble, one that costs as much as launching a new scripted series.
Still, if anyone can make this work, it's Harris, who's knocked 'em dead as an Emmy and Tony Awards emcee and is about to take on the Oscars. Plus, he's expressed enthusiasm for the idea of hosting a variety show in the past. The fact that he's actually eager for such a challenge should help enormously.
And NBC, apparently having learned from past mistakes, may be the right network to revive the variety show. It already has "America's Got Talent" and "Saturday Night Live," plus the variety-ish "The Voice" and the live primetime musicals like last year's "The Sound of Music" and the upcoming "Peter Pan." As NBC head of alternative television Paul Teledgy told Vulture, "We have a natural affinity for this type of show. It's in our DNA."
Whether it's in the audience's DNA is another matter.
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