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Long live the second Rose Parade

Joe Mathews, a contributing writer for Opinion, is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

The Rose Parade is not one parade but two. First, there’s the fast-moving extravaganza that rounds the corner onto Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, horses and flowers and band members fresh for the TV cameras and the holders of expensive grandstand seats. And then, for everyone else, there’s the five-mile procession eastward of wilting floats, sweaty trumpeters and thirsty horses.

I grew up on this second parade. My family lived a mile east of the start line and five blocks south of Colorado Boulevard. My friends and I made the parade route a playground. We ate leftover tamales with the families who camped out all night on the sidewalks to watch the parade through groggy eyes. We tossed footballs and -- I have to confess -- water balloons at teenagers who escaped their parents for an outdoor sleepover with friends. And we met people from all over the world, tourists who had always dreamed of witnessing the parade in person.

These fans were the heart of the parade. They were rowdier than the worthies at the parade’s start, but they provided the energy, authenticity and the huge attendance numbers that kept the event, first staged in 1890, relevant. And for their devotion, they got a parade stretching so long that its very size seemed to promise a new year without limits.

Now, sadly, we are in an era of limits. The Rose Parade, like so many American institutions, is downsizing. The Tournament of Roses Assn., the organization of 935 volunteers that puts on the parade and Rose Bowl game, is busy satisfying the demands of the broadcasters who show the world the first parade. And the faithful fans of the second -- the families and the kids and the tourists -- will get less as a result.

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Before you dismiss this as the nostalgia of a former Pasadena kid, compare old parade programs with the current list of entries. You’ll find that Thursday’s parade will be about 25% smaller than the ones I saw as a child in the 1980s. A generation ago, there were 120 total entries. Now? Eighty-nine, with just 46 floats, down from the longtime standard of 60.

Why the shorter parade? It’s not the economy. It’s not a lack of interest from bands, equestrians and float builders. It’s not because the crowds that line Pasadena’s streets think the old parade was too long. The problem is, in a word, television.

The Rose Parade first appeared on local TV in 1947. By the 1950s, it was a fixture on the three major networks, giving the event an unparalleled reach. It was a great deal for TV. The Tournament didn’t charge a rights fee, though the networks had to pay property owners at “TV Corner” (Orange Grove and Colorado) for camera positions.

But with the parade available on multiple outlets, the individual networks’ ratings slowly declined in recent decades. And ABC, CBS and NBC, which do pay rights fees for a proliferating number of bowl games, also began to break away from the parade to show football. In 2005, CBS quietly dropped parade coverage.

This created mild panic in Pasadena. Since then, Tournament officials, always accommodating of television, have gone even further to satisfy the two remaining networks. This year, after parade officials became concerned that NBC might become the next network to opt out of the parade, the Tournament improved the network’s camera positions, according to three parade volunteers who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal issues. (An NBC spokeswoman declined comment.)

More significant, Tournament officials also shortened the parade so the networks could program football without having to cut away with the parade still in progress. Thursday, the 89 entries are supposed to pass TV Corner in two hours. The actual parade may be slightly shorter because the Tournament also has introduced a TV-friendly opening show (look for dancers this time).

This strategy is understandable. If the networks desert the Rose Parade -- the Tournament claims 40 million Americans watch on TV -- it would be more difficult to lure top school bands and equestrians from around the world. Corporations might be less willing to sponsor elaborate, technically sophisticated floats, which can cost $300,000 or more.

But no matter how accommodating parade officials are, in a world of fragmented media and diminished TV audiences, the Tournament may not be able to maintain its network TV presence.

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In fact, the cure may be worse than the disease. In trying to retain network coverage, the Tournament could lose the support of its local base. “The parade is too driven by TV,” says Jann Eldnur, a San Marino hairstylist and native of Sweden who rode a horse in the parade for 20 consecutive years until 2008 (“I’m the only Swedish cowboy,” he says). Eldnur considers himself a victim of the downsizing. “We get a million people, some of them who travel from far away, to see the parade live. If we give them less, it kills the parade, really.”

Parade organizers protest that what they have taken away they’ve given back, particularly in the form of the opening show. But that’s mainly for TV viewers and the paying customers of the first parade. The proles to the east are shut out.

The Tournament does sponsor band concerts and equestrian shows in the days before the parade. But these extras aren’t free. In fact, the Tournament charges a $7 admission to watch float decorating and the post-parade show of floats. Once upon a time, those sights were perks for the locals and tourists.

The Tournament would be wise to focus less on new events and more on beefing up the second parade. Worst-case, the parade could survive without network TV (there’s still local, international, Spanish-language and cable TV coverage) but not without locals who supply volunteers to put on the event. Enthusiastic parade fans in cities such as South Pasadena and Sierra Madre make floats year after year. And it’s locals who put up with the inconveniences of hosting a massive, public New Year’s celebration.

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So let’s have more floats and entries, even if it means that TV misses part of the action. Parade organizers need to encourage more local communities to sponsor and build floats, if only as a hedge against corporations leaving the parade. The Tournament also could deepen its local ties by making its leadership as diverse as the people who line the streets. It speaks volumes that the United States will have its first black president before the Tournament of Roses does.

The Rose Parade seems secure, in large part because of its association with the profitable Rose Bowl. But it’s worth remembering that other major parades, such as the Orange Bowl Parade, are dead or dying. The surest way to prevent such a fate in Pasadena is to not let the second parade be diminished by the first.


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