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It Ain’t Sexy, but God Bless the Kennedy Center Honors — and CBS

The network deserves credit for keeping the annual awards on the air in an era of profits-first thinking

Last night, CBS aired the annual Kennedy Center Honors. And once again, not a lot of young folks tuned in.

But guess what: In this case, the ratings don’t really matter. CBS has never expected strong numbers for this two-hour block, and yet it regularly renews its deal for the special. More on that in a second.

First, the numbers: Overall viewership for the special was actually fine. Thanks to an "NCIS" lead-in, Tuesday’s telecast attracted 9.6 million viewers from 9-11 p.m., more eyeballs than ABC and NBC drew combined in the same timeslot.

Among adults 18-49, the KenCen (1.6/5) was less popular (and down a tad from last year), but still managed to outdraw a repeat of "The Jay Leno Show," as well as sitcoms on ABC and NBC.

The KenCen was down about a million viewers from last year, but 2008’s broadcast featured Barbra Streisand and the Who getting awards. This year’s big draws, pop culture wise, were Robert DeNiro and Bruce Springsteen

So, bottom line: the Ken Cen continues to do what it does. And CBS continues to be OK with that.


TV programmers regularly endure all manner of criticism, from run-of-the-mill carping about the quality of shows ("You put that on the air?") to frequent, often politically motivated accusations of moral turpitude ("You put ‘Family Guy’ on the air and now my kid is a serial killer!")

But it’s the holidays. How ’bout we take a break from the whining to point out something nice about the nets?

CBS and its boss Leslie Moonves deserve props for continuing to fund the KenCen Honors with a regular license fee. It would be very easy to let this annual tradition migrate to cable, where fewer people would see it .

But by keeping the KenCen on CBS, Moonves has preserved a 30-year tradition at the network. For two hours each year, ratings and profits take a back seat to simply acting as a good public servant — and maintaining some of that Tiffany Network cred.

That ethos can also be seen by CBS’s continued partnership with Broadway on the Tonys. Nothing the network has done has ever turned the Tonys into a hit, but CBS keeps coming back.

Likewise, the Eye’s "Sunday Morning" remains something of a national treasure for 90 minutes each week. And "60 Minutes" is the only newsmagazine on TV these days that actually breaks real news and investigates truly important things.

Those two shows no doubt contribute to the CBS bottom line in a positive way, particularly "60," which does very well with the very rich. But while CBS isn’t taking a bath on those two programs, it’s still a good thing that the network hasn’t tried to go younger or hipper and instead has keep intact two of its most-loved news franchises.

Some critics will no doubt carp that CBS shouldn’t be praised for simply doing the right thing. They might argue that as a broadcaster, it has an obligation to act in the public interest since it uses public airwaves.

Yeah, whatever. Sadly, the notion of "public interest" died some time in the middle of the first Reagan administration.

Fact is, there’s very little the networks have to do these days to maintain their licenses. And quite frankly, if anyone tried to "get tough" with the networks, broadcasters would be foolish not to immediately tell their affiliates (and the government) to take a hike… and head on over to the warm, dual revenue stream waters of cable, a place where Time Warner has no problem shelling out $1 per subscriber for "Lopez Tonight."

CBS doesn’t have to keep the Kennedy Center Honors on TV. Or the Tonys. Or "Sunday Morning."

But it does. And we’re grateful.