Can CBS' Grammy telecast still hold its own?

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When the Grammy Awards telecast bursts into full-throated song on Sunday night, live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, it will mark the awards show's 50th year. But there will be another milestone to celebrate as well -- the Grammys' 35th year on CBS.

The first two televised Grammy Awards shows, in 1971 and '72, appeared on ABC. But in 1973, CBS snared the rights and has held its high note since. But the show's tune at the network today bears little resemblance to the one it sang when the Grammys was the only music awards show on the dial.

Back in 1973, cable was in its infancy, there were no DVD players, no TiVo, no Internet, and VCRs were more expensive than HDTVs. It was the last vestige of the Big Three networks' dominance in television, and they had the home-entertainment audience all to themselves.

That first year it aired the Grammys, CBS attracted a whopping 53% of the television audience and 52% the year after that, in 1974. It was the music industry's Super Bowl and CBS was the proud conduit. There were the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys -- period.

But today, with the Grammys battling the perception that it's yesterday's news, an icon of the older generation -- and with CBS representing a similarly aged demographic -- the show's relevance is being challenged as perhaps never before. Forget the divisive writers strike -- it's difficult enough for the show in the best of times, given the ongoing issues facing the music industry itself as it battles Internet piracy and plummeting record sales.

Just don't share any pessimistic scenarios with Jack Sussman, CBS executive vp specials, music and live events. "The Grammys is the biggest night in the music business, bar none," Sussman asserts. "It always has been and always will be. We believe in the power of the brand. We work very closely with the (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences) to put on a show that stays true to the year in music while celebrating the past, present and future."

What has changed drastically, particularly over the past 12-15 years, is the music-awards-show playing field on television. The Grammys now must compete for prestige and eyeballs with any number of similar events and, of course, the MTV Video Music Awards -- which falls under the same Viacom umbrella as the Grammys but has undeniably trumped its far older sister in terms of significance to young America.

Ken Ehrlich, the TV specials maestro who will produce his 28th Grammycast for CBS on Sunday, acknowledges the VMAs' demo dominance, but maintains that the Grammys has lowered its demographic target in the past decade or so.

"The CBS demo is by definition older and broader than MTV's, of course," Ehrlich says, "but we have an awful lot of young people watching. Everyone's ratings are slipping, but we're holding steady."

For the most part, that's true: Last year's Grammy telecast rated a 12.3 with a 19 share, an uptick from the previous two years, but a drop from 2004's 15.7/24.

Ehrlich worked his first Grammy show for CBS in 1980. It was held that year in the Shrine Auditorium, he recalls, though his mandate since has been to make the show bigger -- hence, the move to larger arenas.

While Ehrlich maintains that in the weeks leading up to the Grammys there are many meetings with the NARAS brain trust -- and that "CBS is not in on those calls" -- that doesn't mean the network has no input into the live telecast. One might imagine that given CBS' more conservative viewership, there might have been some debate over the years as to the best artists to have perform on the show.

"And you would be correct," Ehrlich confirms. "I wouldn't characterize them as disagreements so much as perhaps 'spirited discussions.' It's mostly about some of the more niche areas of American music. So yes, CBS and I will butt heads occasionally. But at the end of the day, we want the same thing -- to put on a great awards show.

"And our relationship always has been terrific. There is still this commitment CBS has to putting on quality programming, which it doesn't always get credit for."

Notes Sussman: "We are not absentee buyers. We have input and are partners as with any other TV show we're involved in. That said, we live by the rules that the Grammys and NARAS set down."

NARAS president Neil Portnow sees Sussman as his partner as well, respecting his opinion and valuing his point of view. "But we don't seek CBS' approval every step of the way," Portnow stresses. "We are the people who determine what the Grammy show will be."

That show has evolved over the years to be more inclusive of new musical genres and to reflect the changing tastes of the viewing public. The one constant that has perhaps kept the Grammys at the forefront as a broadcast phenomenon is its staging of magical collaborative moments: Simon & Garfunkel reuniting to open the 2003 Grammys, or Beyonce and Prince duetting on "Purple Rain" for the 2004 show.

"You know that when you turn on the TV at 8:00, you're going to get amazing programming and entertainment," Sussman says, "and it'll all be happening live. It is literally the hardest show to produce on TV. What continues to make us different than all other awards shows is the mandate to reflect, incorporate and celebrate all genres. But that's why I don't think other music shows have lessened the Grammys' impact. We never have to give someone an Artist of the Decade award just to get them in the building."

The WGA has agreed to an interim agreement with Grammy producers, and Portnow is gratified that so many artists have come out in support of putting on the show regardless of the WGA strike situation. Over the past several months, he has been passionately vocal about the importance of the Grammys going forward unimpeded so that the country can see the music industry remains united.

"I know how much the Grammys has meant to CBS, to be the recording industry's partner all of these years," Portnow says, "and that long-term association has meant just as much to NARAS. We're pleased that the current labor situation won't be impacting that relationship."
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