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Nets Ease on Down The Live TV Road

The road to NBC’s The Wiz Live! is not so much yellow brick as dinged-up black concrete. Grumman Studios, located about an hour’s drive east of 30 Rockefeller Center, sits in a dour Long Island office park that was home base to Grumman when it made fighter jets. Instead of poppies, weeds sneak through the broken pavement of a barren parking lot adjacent to the studio. In place of Emerald City, a giant red sphere hovers at the top of the studio complex, with ‘Grumman Studios’ in flaking paint.

Grumman built the Apollo Lunar Module on this site a half-century ago. While NBC’s current mission isn’t exactly sending an aircraft to the moon, one can imagine the buzz of activity and anxiety swirling around Grumman Studios’ mission control these days is somewhat similar to that giant-leap-for-mankind vibe.

The Wiz Live! is NBC’s third consecutive December attempt to break through the clutter on broadcast, cable and digital with a live stage production. The network hopes it represents a more novel viewing option Dec. 3 than what’s on the DVR or Netflix, that it lands in social media’s sweet spot and that a live production can still seize buzz after last year’s Peter Pan Live! drew tepid numbers. The pressure is on. “Anything can go wrong, but we know that when we get to the night of Dec. 3, everybody will be ready,” says Neil Meron, The Wiz Live! executive producer along with Craig Zadan. “Anything that happens after that are mistakes we could never predict.”

That would include an LED screen going haywire, or Dorothy tripping over the Cowardly Lion’s tail, or that harness suspending stunt Dorothy 30 feet above Kansas during the fateful tornado…well, use your imagination. It’s all part of live TV’s unique value proposition. “If you hit a bad note, if you forget the lyrics, you’re just out there,” says Zadan. “It’s terrifying for performers to do something like this for three hours.”

Endless rehearsals cover all the wild cards except for one. “You can’t account for nerves,” notes Zadan.

Livening Up Ratings

Recent live specials have included A&E’s Fear: Buried Alive, Destination America’s Exorcism: Live! and Nat Geo’s Brain Surgery Live. Others on the schedule include Nat Geo Wild’s Safari Live Nov. 27, while Fox will stage Grease: Live on Jan. 31. Add those to the array of traditional live content—NFL games, awards shows, performance shows such as The Voice and American Idol—and TV is continuing to make a serious effort to try living in the moment.

“The audience is looking for authentic, unfiltered, real experiences,” says Geoff Daniels, executive VP/general manager at Nat Geo Wild. “With live TV, it’s totally unpredictable.”

Exorcism: Live!—exclamation points are big among this type of program—earned a 0.59 rating among viewers 25-54 Oct. 30, good for about 614,000 total viewers, which Henry Schleiff, group president, calls a “phenomenal, phenomenal success.” Perhaps more telling, the show generated 29,000 tweets and 3.6 million total Twitter impressions, says Destination America, citing Nielsen SocialGuide Intelligence. “It helps to brand and deliver a network like Destination America as a leader in the genre of paranormal,” says Schleiff.

Bob Greenblatt, the NBC entertainment chairman who has theater production credits on his résumé, described himself as a “live junkie” at a Television Critics Association press event in August. “We are in the events business,” Goldblatt tells B&C. “These days, as audiences are harder to capture, we could’ve filmed a conventional movie. But we decided going live just ratchets it up a bit. It’s exciting for the performers, and it’s exciting for the audience as well.”

NBC’s Undateable has been airing live for both coasts weekly this season, a ploy designed to take advantage of the multiple improv performers in the cast and their off-the-cuff tangents that weren’t making the final cut. NBC has had a devilish time birthing hit comedies; while Undateable is hardly a smash, showrunner Bill Lawrence says the live aspect—characters discussing more timely events at the bar and trying to make each other crack up throughout—helps differentiate it. “Creatively, it does make a sitcom stand out a little bit,” he says. “It makes it feel fresh.”

‘Peter’ Panned

The novelty of a live stage telecast has fallen precipitously since NBC put on The Sound of Music Live! in December 2013. Some 18.6 million viewers tuned in to see Carrie Underwood play singing governess Maria, good for a 4.6 rating among viewers 18-49. The network’s Peter Pan Live! a year later, with Allison Williams donning the green tights to mixed reviews, was viewed by about half that—a 2.3 rating in the demo and 9.1 million total viewers.

Wiz producers are confident the show can bring back the luster of live. A reimagining of the 1975 Broadway hit, The Wiz has big names in the cast, including Queen Latifah as The Wiz, David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion and Stephanie Mills as Auntie Em; Mills played Dorothy in the Broadway version 40 years before. The show also features acrobatic flourishes from Cirque du Soleil. “It’s contemporary, it’s African-American, it’s got very cool music and dance,” says Zadan. “As a result, it just feels different in spirit and in scope.”

While Greenblatt has a modest forecast for ratings, saying they will likely be much more in line with Peter Pan than Sound of Music, The Wiz Live!, its budget north of $10 million, is a big bet by NBC. After a month of rehearsals in New York City, the production rolled out to Long Island in early November. On a chilly Veterans Day, it’s the first day of camera blocking. Shanice Williams, a relative unknown playing Dorothy (she told USA Today that NBC’s Wiz was her first professional audition), and Mills hash out a tense pre-tornado scene as director Kenny Leon watches. “The storm’s not waiting for a little girl to come to her senses,” warns Auntie Em.

After every couple of lines, a stage manager comes out to give direction. It’s tedious stuff. If Dec. 3 is the Super Bowl, this is the quarterback taking a mind-numbing number of reps under center, fine-tuning his footwork.

But Williams stays upbeat. “The day is going by so quick,” she says to no one in particular. “I’m having so much fun.”

Elijah Kelley, who plays the Scarecrow, has a big batch of film and television credits. Live television is a new experience for him, and for most everyone in the Wiz cast. “Being live is one of the most telling experiences,” Kelley says. “It shows your flaws, it shows whatever greatness someone may encompass. Having all that at stake at one time is exhilarating.”

Fittingly for the project at hand, Greenblatt likens showtime to being in the eye of the storm—a whirlwind of activity around him but a decided sense of calm closer to home. After The Wiz Live!, the principals will unwind a bit before considering NBC’s next live scripted production. Greenblatt has talked about producing The Music Man and would love to do a live scripted drama, though he acknowledges the considerable challenges of such an undertaking. But he remains committed to the concept of live. “When people watch stuff outside of the advertising window, it doesn’t really help us,” he says. “We want to offer the sense of immediacy, where you watch it when it airs. We want to make an event out of it.”

Those Men Behind the Curtain

Back in their shared office at Grumman Studios, Zadan and Meron are putting out a thousand fires. A P.A. announcement imploring all “munchkins” to “please report to wardrobe to get your shoes” eases the tension. A moment later, it’s back to work.

While their backgrounds are in theater and film, the producing partners are no strangers to live TV, having produced the last three Academy Awards telecasts. Zadan says people tune in to see the unexpected, be it good (Ellen DeGeneres handing out pizza slices at the Oscars) or bad (the Nazi flat-out forgetting his lines in Sound of Music). “People watch because they want to see what happens; they want to see if someone trips and falls,” he says. “If everything goes right, they feel like they could’ve just DVR’d it. They’re dying to see something at least go a little wrong.”

Smiles mask the anxiety inherent in the mission. “You just don’t know what you’re gonna get,” Zadan says. “It’s kind of terrifying.”