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April 17, 2014

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Live performance of ‘Sound of Music’ is ratings gem for NBC

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AP Photo/NBC, Will Hart

Stephen Moyer as Capt. Von Trapp and Carrie Underwood as Maria star in “The Sound of Music Live!” airing Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, on NBC.

NBC’s gamble of filling an entire night with live musical theater paid off handsomely Thursday as “The Sound of Music,” with Carrie Underwood in the Julie Andrews role of Maria, posted the network’s best entertainment ratings for a Thursday night since 2009.

In preliminary ratings, the special pulled in 18.5 million viewers, the best number for any entertainment show on NBC this season, and an excellent 4.6 rating in the most important category for advertisers, viewers aged 18 to 49.

Nothing on NBC — other than sports — has done as well on a Thursday night since April 2, 2009, when it aired the finale of “ER.” In terms of a three-hour average audience, NBC has not done as well since May 13, 2004, a night that included the finale of “Frasier,” which attracted more than 22 million viewers.

The ratings results defied the expectations from many quarters of the television business, where the idea of a live musical on television was considered a grandiose folly. The performance attracted a host of snarky comments on Twitter during its three-hour airing, some from fans of the movie, but mostly from those members of the public who proudly call themselves hate-watchers.

The reception from professional reviewers, forced to write after the fact, was also largely negative. But none of that appeared to have an impact on the numbers.

The unexpectedly big success is a coup for Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of entertainment for NBC, who has been the prominent advocate for Broadway-style entertainment on the network. (Greenblatt has been a Broadway producer himself.)

His first effort in this direction, the drama “Smash,” did not work out as he hoped, but this gamble — live theater on network television, a throwback to earlier eras of the medium and events like “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella” — paid off so well it is almost a certainty that the network will be looking for other musicals to mount live around holidays.

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