In an era when change seems inevitable, so it is for a Labor Day weekend television tradition.
The Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annual telethon already has undergone considerable change in recent years, ending its long association with Jerry Lewis … and also going to a much shorter format rather than remaining an almost 24-hour event. And this year, one network is generating another change.
After being shown on an ad-hoc collection of local stations across the country for decades, the fundraiser will air exclusively on one network — ABC — for the first time as a two-hour program in prime time Sunday, Sept. 1. The newly renamed MDA Show of Strength Telethon will feature the usual mix of celebrity appearances, musical performances and informational segments, but in a package more tightly organized than ever.
That’s appropriate in the view of the show’s executive producer: R.A. “Rac” Clark, son of the late, legendary television personality and producer Dick Clark. He also had that job last year when the MDA Telethon still was syndicated, and while it also was presented then in a vastly shortened form (three hours, after going down to six hours in 2011), he sees room for even more innovation this time.
“I went to the MDA when they were looking for producers,” Clark tells Zap2it, “and I deconstructed what I thought were some of the issues around the telethon’s format, even at its six-hour length. That [viewing commitment] is just not what people do anymore. We live in a 140-character world, and I said, ‘We’ve got to make it more contemporary.’
“I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, with my mom, and I used to stay up all night watching the telethon, because that was the moment before school was starting. And I loved it, but that was back in the ’60s and ’70s, and times have changed. Based on what we did last year, we were able to go to ABC and say, ‘This is what the show is evolving into. We need the carriage. We need the viewership. We need a network behind it.’ “
Clark reports he and the MDA also went to “the other majors,” but ABC ultimately was the network that stepped up.
“After last year,” he says, “I went back to the MDA and told them, ‘You have a network-quality show that can now be pitched there,’ with the production value and the name value and a cause behind it. When you look at all the other cause-based entertainment programs, the MDA Telethon now stands up to them in this new arena.”
The names of the included celebrities support that. Among those slated to appear at this writing were Ryan Seacrest (“who’s going to kick off the evening for us,” Clark notes), Paula Abdul, Backstreet Boys, Matthew Morrison (“Glee”), Enrique Iglesias, Darius Rucker and Florence Henderson.
“The more entertainment you put in, the better off you are,” Clark reasons.
Also the producer behind Blake Shelton’s recent “Healing in the Heartland” benefit concert for Oklahoma tornado victims — which NBC and several other networks televised — as well as the annual Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS, Clark allows that the production schedule for the MDA Show of Strength Telethon enabled many of the talents to be involved, since the show is prerecorded.
“There have always been cause-based entertainment specials,” he reflects, “and I think they work. People want to see them, and I think that opened up the door for ABC to say, ‘OK. We’ll take a chance on this.’ This is a brand that’s known, though. If this was a brand-new charity, I don’t know that it would have the same chance.
“I think everybody is aware of the MDA,” adds Clark, “but I think it’s seen in its ’60s or ’70s version. This is an opportunity to bring it into 2013. I don’t know the inner workings of what transpired (with former host Lewis), but I know the organization is really thankful for what he’s done. He’s the reason we’re able to do this on ABC. He set the foundation for it.”
The Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon began its yearly run on just one New York station in 1966, then grew into an enduring holiday viewing tradition nationwide, often originating from Las Vegas. While Clark wants to maintain the familiar feel of the program, he hopes its new configuration is a better fit for today’s audience.
“I said (to the MDA), ‘It’s going to have to be a two-hour event that gets your message across, acknowledges your sponsors and your locals (the related efforts in each area), and tells the story of what your cause is.’ No matter how long the show is, it’s always going to be about moving toward treatments and cures for muscle diseases.
“In my estimation,” Clark concludes, “the best way to do that, besides online and digital media, is a network prime-time broadcast. That has the best potential of reaching the most people.”