A case of stage fight?

Times Staff Writer

CBS is expanding its Tony Awards coverage to include the ceremony's full three hours, leaving PBS, which had broadcast the show's first hour since 1997, to look on longingly from the wings.

CBS has broadcast two hours of the Tony Awards for 25 years but recently has had mixed feelings about the program, a prestigious event that makes money and attracts an upscale audience but has nonetheless drawn lackluster ratings.

Still, the network, perhaps taking a page from last week's performance-packed, well-received Grammy Awards show, said a three-hour format for the June 8 show will enable it to present more live performances; it also gives CBS original programming for summer.

"Certainly, the ratings and response to this year's Grammys shows the audience responds to more live performances," said a CBS spokesman. This year's Broadway roster includes an unusual mix of traditional and more cutting-edge productions, including "Hairspray," a Baz Luhrmann production of "La Boheme," the hip-hop "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway" and an upcoming revival of "Gypsy," starring Bernadette Peters.

Just how PBS got cut out of the loop is in dispute.

CBS said that "when we had an opportunity to expand to three hours, we took advantage of it." But two PBS executives said PBS wanted the broadcast back and had been told that CBS had exercised its right to take the entire ceremony.

"We were told that CBS was taking the hour. We wanted to have it back, and we would have found the budget," despite a tough financial situation, said PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan.

The PBS portion of the broadcast has run a deficit of a "couple hundred thousand" dollars for PBS, "but we did it because we wanted to support the theater community," said Bill Baker, the president of WNET, the New York public television station that coordinated PBS' broadcast.

WNET and PBS wanted to continue to do the broadcast, he said, despite uncertainty about where the money would come from, and were surprised to get a call about a month ago "saying CBS wanted to do the whole thing."

Elizabeth McCann, managing producer of Tony Award Productions, said she called Jac Venza, WNET's director of performing arts programming, and told him that the Tonys and CBS were "beginning to have serious conversations about CBS picking up the third hour, and he said, 'Thank God, go with them. We don't have the money.' I certainly never officially told PBS we didn't want them."

Venza, however, said through a spokeswoman that it is common for WNET to commit to a program before it has the funds, and that the station wasn't invited back to the Tonys this year.

McCann said she's sorry if there was a misunderstanding. "They were good friends of the theater and I don't like to see them upset. I don't like the impression they were pushed out. But our impression was that [the PBS hour] was getting more and more costly, the budget was getting more and more restricted and ... they would have not been able to afford it."

Members of the Broadway theater community had for years requested that the full three-hour Tony Awards show be televised, before PBS started airing it in 1997. It gave a showcase to the writing and craft awards that had often been shut out of the limelight. "We were trying to do something of special value to the theater community," Baker said. "If we were able to grow [the first hour] in a way that makes it economically viable for a commercial network, then that means we did something good."

News that the broadcasts would be combined on one network was well-received in the theater community. Producer James Freydberg, a member of the Tony Awards administration committee, said, "The split between PBS and CBS was wonderful for the people who received their awards, but it didn't keep continuity going for the audience." Doing a single show, he said, "will strengthen the awards, and it might help" the two Tony-sponsoring organizations -- the League of American Theatres and Producers and the American Theatre Wing "to get along better."


Don Shirley in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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