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AMC's Star-Studded Lennon Tribute Defies Expectations

“So this is Christmas/And what have you done …”

AMC’s answer to that question, posed in “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, is an all-star concert honoring the late Beatle, who would have turned 75 this past Oct. 9.

The show, produced with Blackbird Presents and emceed by Kevin Bacon, took place Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. A two-and-a-half-hour version airs Saturday, Dec. 19, as Imagine: John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) on AMC.

The Wire assumed AMC’s corporate ties to MSG played a role, but programming executive Joel Stillerman said Blackbird’s Keith Wortman brought the idea to AMC, booked the building and got the performers (including Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and The Roots) without any such help.

AMC, though, had put out the word earlier this year that it was on the lookout for nonfiction programming “against a filter of things that feel event-like,” either in the form of documentary series like The Making of the Mob or live happenings like concerts.

“We thought [Lennon] was the right artist to do this with, and it was the right time,” Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, told The Wire a few days after the show.

While under discussion for several months, the concert event was fairly recently greenlit, Stillerman said. The theater, though, was filled that festive Saturday night with Lennon fans who bought tickets and others, including The Wire, invited as guests.

The house band, led by Don Was and Greg Phillinganes, was tight and the performances felt spontaneous — sometimes very much so. Only one song had to be done twice, to fi x a lighting issue during Spoon’s lively “Hey Bulldog.”

Stillerman, who worked on many live shows at MTV and as an independent producer before joining AMC, said the whole thing was remarkably drama-free. “Everybody just felt like they seriously wanted to be there for one reason, which was to honor a guy that they loved and who was hugely influential on them.”

“Happy Xmas” is definitely on the menu — performed by Aloe Blacc, Sheryl Crow and Peter Frampton — and Stillerman thought it was a highlight of the show. The Wire also enjoyed Willie Nelson’s “Imagine,” Blacc’s “Watching the Wheels” and the Brandon Flowers (of The Killers) version of “Instant Karma,” among others.

“We’re happy we did this,” Stillerman said, asked if viewers should expect more concerts from the home of The Walking Dead. “We love sort of defying expectations at AMC and trying things that are a little out of our comfort zone. I really think we got very fortunate with a night that felt like it had the right spirit, that had some great moments, that had some great emerging artists step up and blow people away in a very unexpected way. If there’s an opportunity to try and replicate that, we will, but no plans right now.”

— Kent Gibbons

Keeping Eyes On the Ball

Old acquaintances may be forgot, but media outlets with bigger plans than budgets should not forget that there is a free feed — hosts included — of the New Year’s Eve festivities in New York’s Times Square.

The Times Square Alliance is again teaming with Countdown Entertainment to provide a “clean” uninterrupted, HD satellite/fiber feed for domestic and international television outlets, broadcasters, cable networks and websites.

The feed will be hosted by Allison Hagendorf and three correspondents will cover the action, from the ball-raising ceremony to stage performances to the dropping of the ball at midnight.

Why is it free? “This is a public-private partnership … No one pays a ticket to come into Times Square, and we want to make it available to the broadcasters covering the event for free, too,” Countdown Entertainment president Jeff Straus told The Wire. That extends to cable operators and webmasters as well.

— John Eggerton