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MDA Telethon Becomes a Network Production

If you’re a fan of the annual MDA Telethon, you might need to check your local listings this year: it may not be in the same place.

For the first time, the MDA Telethon held every Labor Day has an exclusive network home: on ABC.

Organizers of the MDA Show of Strength Telethon, the new name for the annual event since it parted ways with comedian Jerry Lewis, have signed a deal with the ABC network. This means the two-hour event, which used to be a 21-hour marathon, will only be seen on ABC affiliates.

I grew up in a town where the ABC station was that market’s MDA “Love Network” affiliate. Then I moved to a town where (I think) it aired on the CBS station. Now I live in a town where it has also run on the CBS station.

By making it a network show, the MDA could save money. When it was airing on local stations on a market-by-market basis, the MDA sometimes had to pay for at least a portion of the airtime on each station. That’s because the stations airing it often had to spend extra money on overtime for its crews to broadcast a live production at a time when most of the crew wouldn’t have been in the studio; add to the fact that this used to happen on a holiday weekend, and it made it that much more difficult for them to fully staff the production. But the tradeoff for the telethon sometimes being treated as though it was a “paid program” was that it brought a great deal of awareness to the forefront about the many forms of neuromuscular disease, the strides being made in the fight against them, and the ongoing need for research to continue making that progress.

For years, it was a more-than-worthwhile investment.

But thanks to the internet age, fewer people sit in front of a television for hours at a time to watch a fundraiser. Even fewer pick up a telephone to call and make a pledge: they’d rather sign up online for such a donation if they make one at all.

More and more often, phone banks of volunteers sat at phones that didn’t ring. Last year, the telethon addressed this by ordering its local affiliates to drop the phone bank concept altogether, directing viewers to a centralized telephone line that took donations from everyone without having to show shots of operators waiting for a call.

This change marks the latest in a series of changes for the telethon. Two years ago, Jerry Lewis, who’d hosted the show from day one, was out. And though the reason has been speculated endlessly, we still don’t have a specific reason for his departure. And in television, it’s very curious that after all this time, no one’s talking, yet. Also that year, it was shortened from a 21-hour to a 6-hour event.

Last year, it was cut in half to a running time of just three hours. Another striking difference last year was the fact that the show was entirely pre-recorded.

Let’s all admit it: even if we didn’t pick up the phone and donate, there was something exciting about watching an aging, more cantankerous Jerry Lewis go on one his wild rants, knowing he was on the air live. What would he say next? What would the crew do next? That unpredictable element had a “train wreck” quality that we couldn’t always turn away from, no matter how much we may have wanted to.

The lack of spontaneity made, perhaps, for a more “polished” show, but a less exciting one. We don’t know, yet, whether the show will be done live or prerecorded this year, but a live element could at least make it more appealing. (At least if it’s not executed the way the Daytime Emmys were on HLN this past weekend, where mispunches, missed cues and general confusion seemed to be the order of the evening.)

Have you been a regular watcher of the annual MDA telethon? Are you likely to watch it this year?

5 Comments

  1. I am always very iffy on the topic of the MDA Telethon.  I love what they do in a way, but I also know that they do not use the money always in the best of ways.  How am I supposed to decide if it is good to help them alot?  I pose this question being a girl who went to MDA Clinics growing up and also went to MDA Camp as a child.  I saw some of the stuff that they were spending some of the money on in the Chicago area and was not pleased. I do not know if all areas are like that or if Chicago is still like that, but it always makes me hem and haw over whether or not I should actually watch or volunteer since I do get asked most years to volunteer.

  2. The attachment of many to the telethon has much to do with nostalgia, I think, both for the long history of the telethon itself as well as its place in the history of television. The very idea of a live television program, 21 hours long, with intermittent breaks to local TV stations is astounding. Perhaps next year they can get Rob Morrow and release all 21 hours on Netflix simultaneously.

    1. @James Kirk The other thing was that back then, they had 21 hours worth of genuine STARS: Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Norm Crosby. There were names and talent associated with those names. And they became names through struggling to reach the top, not having a video go viral on YouTube. There just isn’t the same caliber of “stars” out there today.

  3. I have not watched the MDA telethon since I was a child.  One year I was watching it with my family and I actually was frightened when Jerry Lewis ran into the audience shouting, shoving a bucket at them and demanding that they donate right then and there.  I’m not sure how old I was but I wasn’t used to loud, boisterous personalities so this scared me a lot. I don’t think I’ve watched the telethon since then.

    1. Cathryn (aka Strange) Well, if there was a telethon host that might scare children, Lewis was probably it. I think he meant well, but he didn’t always go about things in the best way. Then again, once you reach a certain level of stardom, you tend to want to do things your way or no way.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.