Analysis: How can ‘Sound of Music’ solve a problem like NBC Thursday?

Once upon a time, NBC’s Thursday was the envy of all of the networks, a steadily churning assortment of comedy and drama hits. Then, gradually, NBC’s Thursday became an embarrassment, an assortment of critical darlings and turkeys united only in what seemed to be a strange quest to fall behind The CW among young viewers.
Frequently this fall, NBC has succeeded in that unintended goal, with “Parks and Recreation” and “Welcome to the Family” often looking up at “The Vampire Diaries” in several key demos.
This Thursday (December 5), however, NBC found a way back to the top of the heap and the network did so without relying on “The Voice” or the Olympics.
The Final National ratings are in for NBC’s “The Sound of Music” and they are fairly massive. The Carrie Underwood-fronted musical rose slightly from Fast Nationals with a whopping 18.62 million viewers and stayed steady with a 4.6 rating among adults 18-49.
It would be a lie to say that “The Sound of Music” clobbered everything in its path. While “The Sound of Music” easily beat “The Big Bang Theory” in the 8:00 half-hour in total viewers, 17.67 million to 15.58 million, “The Big Bang Theory” averaged a 4.8 rating among adults 18-49, compared to the 4.4 for “The Sound of Music.” However, the bulk of that advantage came among older viewers. Among adults 25-54, “Big Bang Theory” actually routed “Sound of Music,” with a 6.1 rating, compared to the 4.9 for the NBC musical. That advantage vanishes as you age things down. Among adults 18-34, “The Sound of Music” moved into the lead with a 4.1 rating, to the 3.6 rating for “Big Bang Theory” and among viewers 12-34, “The Sound of Music” pushed its advantage to a 0.6 rating. Not surprisingly, “Big Bang Theory” remained consistently dominant in all available male demos, including nearly doubling “Music” in the 25-54 range and still winning handily in the lower demos. With women, however, it was a pretty clean sweep, from a slim 0.2 edge among women 25-54 to a solid 2.0 gap among women 18-34.
While your Twitter feed may have suggested to you that everybody was either waiting to see Carrie Underwood fall down or on the verge of tuning out entirely, “The Sound of Music” didn’t see the sort of viewer attrition that would corroborate that social media suspicion. The musical’s biggest audience came in the 8:30 half-hour as post-“TBBT” viewership swelled “Music” to 19.89 million viewers and a 5.0 rating among adults 18-49. While there was, indeed, some attrition in the 9 p.m. half-hour, “Music” ticked back up at 9:30. Even if the 10:30 half-hour was down to 17.19 million viewers and a 4.2 key demo rating, I think we can all agree that that’s pretty good retention for a three-hour drawn-out musical.
This morning, before Finals were in, NBC released a slew of comparisons for how big “The Sound of Music” was:
It was the most watched non-sports Thursday since “American Idol” drew 25.3 million in March of 2011.
It was NBC’s most watched non-sports night since Golden Globes night in January 2007 drew 20.04 million.
It was NBC’s best non-sports Thursday audience among adults 18-49 since the April 2009 finale of “ER.” 
It was NBC’s best non-sports Thursday overall since the May 2004 finale of “Frasier.”
Now, of course, NBC will have to figure out if there’s anything the network can possibly do to build on this momentum. You can bet that NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have already discussed the musical they want to do next December — I’ve already suggested “Cabaret” with Kat McPhee as Sally and Alexander Skarsgard as The MC — but will that be fast enough? 
Event TV and Live TV have already become the Holy Grail for saving TV As We Know It. If you do something live, people feel like they need to watch things live and people who watch things live can’t fast-forward through commercials. NBC is planning a variety special starring Maya Rudolph for post-Olympics. Will it be live? It should be! Maya Rudolph knows how to do live.
A commenter on my morning ratings piece suggested a full-on revival of the “Playhouse 90” franchise and I’d actually love to see that. Actors are always blathering about the rush of live theater, but they also find it really hard to fit a full London or New York stage run into busy schedules. If NBC and Zadan and Meron set up a live theatrical franchise that did a new live show every two months — not an impossible task — it’s plausible that they could attract the very highest tier of talent for the endeavor. What EGOT-craving star wouldn’t want to do a one-night-only version of a classic play or musical to pick up that “E”? 
Aim for the stars! Ryan Gosling is Hamlet! Jonah Hill is Marty! Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as George and Martha! Jennifer Hudson in “Porgy and Bess”! Kelly Clarkson as Annie Oakley! Abe Vigoda is The Stage Manager! [Several of those are spectacular ideas, as is Alexander Skarsgard as The MC, if I’m patting myself on the back.]
And, heck, make one play per year an original by an American playwright. Goose the live theater a bit! What’s Jon Robin Baitz got handy? Tracy Letts? How about Theresa Rebeck? [Little joke on the Theresa Rebeck part. But only a little.]
Eventually, somebody is bound to trip and fall off of the stage during one of these live shows and until that day comes, people will keep tuning in.
Look, I know that “The Sound of Music” is completely unique in terms of its fandom and its generation-spanning appeal, but surely there are two or three musicals that are in that next tier. NBC probably shouldn’t expect “Sound of Music” ratings every time, but when the alternative is “Welcome to the Family” numbers? Why not try “Guys and Dolls”? Or “Fiddler on the Roof”? Or “My Fair Lady”? 
And how much credit do we give to Carrie Underwood? The answer is: Not enough. As I tell my HitFix colleague Katie Hasty in the video above, Sutton Foster or some other Broadway ace would absolutely have given a superior performance, but she wouldn’t have attracted nearly the curiosity factor that the “American Idol” winner delivered. But let’s not rush to think that Carrie Underwood should front her own variety show. However let’s also not forget that 2009’s “Carrie Underwood: An All-Star Holiday Special” drew over 8.5 million viewers and a 2.3 rating among adults 18-49 for FOX, numbers that would make NBC beyond giddy on Thursdays. You may mock her acting all you like and you may mock her reality TV pedigree, but Carrie Underwood is a genuine star who people enjoy watching. The “Sound of Music” brand gets primary credit here, the live theatricality gets secondary credit, but Underwood’s tertiary credit shouldn’t be understated. NBC should want to be in the Carrie Underwood business, provided she doesn’t ask to star in the network’s *next* reboot of “Prime Suspect.”
Look, it’s either that or a weekly procedural in which the Von Trapp kids sing and solve crimes. 
Take your pick.
And check out the video above.