Sorry ITV, but the Olivier Awards isn’t just about musical theatre

Stephen Mangan and Gemma Arterton, hosts of this year's Olivier Awards. Photo: Alastair Muir.
Stephen Mangan and Gemma Arterton, hosts of this year's Olivier Awards. Photo: Alastair Muir.
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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Following the Oliviers debut on ITV last year, which pulled in 1.3 million viewers on average, organisers of the awards would no doubt have been hoping to see a boost to the number of people tuning in this time round.

Julian Bird, the chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, has previously spoken about the importance of the ceremony building a “track record”, in the hope ITV may well consider giving the ceremony an earlier time slot in the future.

As it happens, there was a drop – a significant one too – for ITV’s coverage of the awards. 800,000 people tuned in. Well below the average of 1.1 million for the ITV Sunday night 10.15pm slot.

So what went wrong?

It didn’t help that host Gemma Arterton began the evening by welcoming the “women and gay men” who would be watching at home. So, let me get this right: if you’re interested in theatre, you’re either a woman or you're gay? That will have gone down well with any heterosexual men who may have been tuning in. Immediately they were told the show wasn’t for them.

[pullquote]Anyone who watched the coverage on ITV would have been forgiven for thinking that all theatre is musical. Or at least, that all theatre worth celebrating is musical.[/pullquote]

Of course, Arterton may have been referring to the number of gay men and women who like musicals. But the Oliviers isn’t just about musical theatre, is it? It’s about all theatre.

Not that you would have guessed it from ITV’s coverage. The awards themselves became secondary to performances from musicals. We had Wicked and Les Mis back to back, we also had The Book of Mormon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a number from Bernadette Peters, who, if we’re honest, was probably a stranger to most of ITV’s audience.

In short, anyone who watched the coverage on ITV would have been forgiven for thinking that all theatre is musical. Or at least, that all theatre worth celebrating is musical.

I enjoy a musical. In fact, I love them. But even I, 30 minutes into the highlights package, was suffering from droopy jazz hand syndrome.

Look at coverage of the BAFTA awards on the BBC. They are exactly that - awards. We have a good couple of hours of actors picking up accolades. ITV, on the other hand, seems to think the only way to sell the Oliviers is to ram musical theatre down people’s throats, while confining awards such as best new play to a “other winners tonight” section.

If – and, let’s face it, we don’t know what will happen after this year’s ratings – ITV do bring back the Oliviers in 2015, they need to seriously consider how to show people at home that the awards celebrate all aspects of theatre, not just musicals. The musical theatre extracts may work for those watching in the Royal Opera House itself, but it wears thin very quickly on TV.

15 Comments

  1. Here we are again, complaining that the TV coverage of the awards was not as good as we all hoped. I’m sorry – but we should be lucky that they were televised at all. I agree with you on what was shown and what wasn’t – but ITV were doing their best to demonstrate things that have the widest possible appeal to make them work.
    As much as it pains me to say – most people within theatre, and London theatre more specifically, live in a very small bubble. The Oliviers hardly recognise achievement within the wider context of London, let alone the rest of the UK. Is anyone actually surprised at the low figures? 2000 or so people most likely to watch were at the event itself. London Theatre, whilst celebrated and enjoyed by audiences from all over the world year on year is such as small part of the national psyche – it is so easy to forget when ‘stagey’ people are totally consumed by their twitter feeds to think that it is the be all and end all. And that’s not to criticise these people on any level – theatre is about being fully consumed and passionate – but it is SO easy when inside the bubble to realise that people on the outside, the occasional theatre visitor, the average ITV Sunday night audience member are just not that interested. ITV took a risk televising them, and put together the best package they could in the limited time they had to turn it around. Rather than bash them for what they did or didn’t focus on – let’s be grateful they were on at all, as next year we’ll all be sad we were so quick to criticise.

  2. @margey: Why must ITV force the creation of a “package” for the largest possible audience. Why not serve the actual audience who are fans of the theatre throughout the country? By creatig an entertainment “package” they alienate serious theatergoers and don’t create a “package” strong enough to lure an unsuspecting wider audience to view the programme. Just show the damn awards and stop imposing the annual sequence of songs from Les Mis and Phantom and Mamma Mia. Let the Olivier’s be the Olivier’s . Period.

  3. Personally I think the affair needs a brand new broom to sweep clean. A producer with a flair for the extravagant and a director with a flamboyant sense of fun. And it needs to be broadcast live and in full. It desperately needs money to achieve this and has to cross-over into popular culture to appeal to all. If they insist on keeping it an awards presentation show as is, that’s not a problem but it simply isn’t great TV and should remain a private affair with perhaps the OB in Covent Garden.

  4. Never mind the coverage why not just scrap the whole murky affair…the Arts as a competitive sport. Why no consign this remnant from a bygone era where we we feel the need to hand out pointless trophies to validate and inflate the fragile egos that are so prevalent in our industry. Why can’t we get over ourselves and just celebrate what had been produced that year without the public patting of backs! It’s a tired and ugly spectacle that our industry should finally lay to rest.

  5. ITV don’t run the event you ignorant runt! They just televise it. If you want to see an improvement then point the finger to the actual people responsible as I’m sure ITV will be doing too after the ratings drop.

    I’ll make it easy for you, here are the organisers address…. (You will notice it’s not an ITV address). awards@solttma.co.uk

  6. ITV Studios co produced the TV coverage. If you think ITV played no part in deciding what aspects of the ceremony should be shown, you’re mistaken.

  7. I totally agree Matt. The Olivier Awards are to celebrate the year of wonderful theatrical talent that we have in the United Kingdom. Other awards ceremonies are broadcast live so why can’t ITV do the same. Theatre brings in more money with tourists than sport will ever achieve. We don’t just have West End theatre, we have Off West End theatres too and quite a few productions transfer. Britain does theatre the best than anywhere around the world and this should be commended on television, LIVE! It’s annoying as I not only love musicals, but I love a good play too. They shouls get equal consideration.

  8. Why was the viewership for the Tonys – which, far more so than the Oliviers, is exclusively focused on commercial theatre, in a ceremony that prioritises musicals, and broadcast on TV – up 1.3 million last year, instead of losing 500,000 like over here (which is an ENORMOUS drop proportionally)? Why are more Americans tuning in to the Tonys than Brits to the Oliviers? It can’t just be about “not being relevant” to the regions; is it star power? Is it entertainment factor? Is it the fact that they start at 8pm instead of 10:15 on a Sunday night? What is it?

    Speaking personally, I read the results on Twitter as they were announced and then Youtubed a couple of the performances today (mostly numbers done on previous awards shows or on the Tonys, of course). Were there any good acceptance speeches? The BBC usually cuts/talks over them; did ITV do the same?

  9. The Oliviers have become rather a joke in part because they are held at the wrong time of the year and often nominate the wrong shows, then most of the winning shows / actors etc are no longer on stage eg the best actor and actress winners – so what exactly is the point of them.

  10. I think ITV made some very questionable decisions – notably editing Best Play out – but I’m not sure the onus really lies on them to make the Oliviers more entertaining for a home audience.

    My understanding is that the Tonys a) cost millions more to stage than the Oliviers and b) are crafted for live TV broadcast.

    So the dream, surely, would be for vastly more money to be pumped into the Oliviers so that it just looks better on TV and can be broadcast in real time – I didn’t feel many of the musical performances came across amazingly, as they had such low production budgets. But I’m not sure SOLT, or SOLT and ITV together are going to do that, because it seems like a pretty huge financial gamble (if, say 2m people watched, would that justify the expense?).

    In general terms the audience award performances do feel like dead wood, especially as there’s so little variation year on year, but I’m not sure what the answer is for giving plays ‘equal’ footing with musicals – getting the actors to perform a two minute scene without a set from a play they may have last been in six months ago feels a bit mad.

    I guess if I was the king of ITV with the same resources as they had this year, I’d just cut out all the Audience Award performances and that Mamma Mia nonsense, maybe trail the Best New Play award with filmed excerpts from everything on the shortlist, and do my best to hack half an hour off the total running time.

  11. I think ITV did a brilliant job of broadcasting the awards. Sensibly and sympathetically edited, great camerawork and slick production values. The BBC would have screwed it up rotten, as they always do. Really enjoyed the show.

  12. The BBC used to screen the ceremony for several year, usually during the BBC 2 evening slot on a Sunday, when the actual award show itself was a rather small, intimate affair. There was rarely any performances (maybe one or two to open and close), just a simple handing out of awards. It was quaint, and classy. The last few years have seen the Oliviers try to become the UK version of the Tonys, but they seem to lack the budget for it, are held at a daft time of year, and I’m afraid in going with ITV for a broadcaster, have picked one who has seemingly abandoned its Arts content (the South Bank Show was axed and then saved by Sky) in favour of reality TV.

  13. Couldnt agree more.I love musicals too but this was way too much,and most of them we had seen over and over again.Where was the best new show in town “Urinetown”.this programme should be highlighting all the new shows in London,not all those creaking LesMis we’ve seen over and over again.And as for ms.Arterton comment about welcome to gay men,well,give me a break.

  14. The show itself was boring. It should be a celebration of British theatre and a great advert for the west end. But it wasn’t. I have been an avid theatre goer for years, and there was nothing that endeared me to spend the money to travel to the west end. The set looked bizarre. Maybe they needed to spend the budget on having more theatre name performers or sequences The Sondheim tribute a few olivier awards ago is a good example of how they could make the oliviers better. Why not have performances from all the musicals that play in the west end, instead of just the nominated ones? Why not excerpts from plays currently running? This year’s olivier awards is the most forgettable ever!

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