ABC’s ‘The Little Mermaid Live!’ television broadcast receives mediocre reviews, casting doubt on the future of live TV musicals.


The Little Mermaid Live!, ABC’s first live TV musical, aired on November 5, 2019, 30 years after the original 1989 film and 12 years after the Broadway show opened. This TV broadcast comes at a time where there is a great push to show popular Broadway shows in a two-dimensional on-screen format, rather than in the traditional performance medium of physically being at a Broadway theatre for the show. This evolution of the medium allows Broadway shows to be made more accessible to a wider audience, especially people who will never be able to travel to Broadway to see a show in-person.

The Little Mermaid Live!, which was broadcast live from the Walt Disney Studios in Hollywood, California, aired with segments of the original film inserted in between the live performances of the original beloved songs. The show garnered 9.1 million live viewers, ranking fourth among the ten live TV musicals that have aired over the past six years. Despite the large amount of viewers, fans were disappointed in the discordant format of the show which hindered what the actors could do with their limited stage time. Paired with lackluster costumes and strange-looking puppets, The Little Mermaid Live! failed to find critical success despite an impressive effort from the cast, including Queen Latifah as the show’s ultra-villain Ursula.

Past Live TV Musicals

The live TV musical genre launched in December 2013 with The Sound of Music Live! (TSOML) and debuted with a whopping 18 million viewers, exceeding all expectations and cemented a whole new genre in the TV landscape. The TSOML live performance, starring Carrie Underwood, received mixed reviews from critics who remarked that the show was enjoyable but unsophisticated. The strong viewership numbers may have been down to novelty more than overall quality of the show, but the sizable viewership attracted the attention of advertisers and opened up the market for other live TV musicals. What followed were nine more live TV musical broadcasts hosted by various broadcast networks including NBC, FOX and ABC.

The Wiz Live! aired in 2015 with an impressive 11.5 million viewers, and Grease Live! followed the next year with 12 million viewers. The promising viewership and positive critical reception of these shows, including five Emmy wins for Grease Live!, foreshadowed success for the future of live TV musicals. However, the genre has failed to maintain its momentum and viewership has continued to decline since those heady days. While shows like Peter Pan Live!, Hairspray Live!, and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert brought in a moderate 9 million viewers, others have failed to hit this basic tide mark. The Passion, which aired in 2016, only brought in 6.6 million viewers and failed to impress critics. A Christmas Story Live! in 2017 had a disappointing 4.5 million viewers, and audiences complained about the lengthy three hour broadcast. In 2019, Rent: Live aired with a dismal 3.4 million TV viewers. After lead actor Brennin Hunt broke his foot the night before the show, Rent: Live decided to air the pre-recorded dress rehearsal in place of the live performance. Both critics and viewers were disappointed in the decision to air a pre-recorded performance of Rent: Live for a show that was developed and marketed as live and the ratings reflected their angst.

Future Schedule For Live Show Broadcasts

Since the poor viewership ratings of Rent: Live and the critical rejection of The Little Mermaid Live!, the future of live TV musicals is now in limbo. Only a week after Rent: Live aired on FOX, NBC abandoned their plans for a live adaptation of the rock-musical hit Hair. The network also postponed indefinitely their plans for a rendition of Bye Bye Birdie starring Jennifer Lopez. Hollywood insiders know that ‘postponed’ usually means cancelled, so we may never see these shows broadcast. In 2016, NBC announced their plans for a live TV play production of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, which was set to star Alec Baldwin, but these plans have also been ‘postponed’ indefinitely. This would have been the first live TV broadcast production of a Broadway play. A live version of Hamilton has been discussed, but no date has been set.

Little Mermaid and Hollywood
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The Little Mermaid Live! has the potential to be the very last live TV musical to reach audiences, certainly for the foreseeable future. There is now little confidence in the genre and producers will not want to commit resources given the declining TV viewership. However, beloved family-friendly Broadway shows seem to have the best chance of success live on the silver screen, and the right show could have the power to save the genre. If Hamilton is produced as a live TV musical, it would restore confidence in the potential of whole live TV musical genre. A live rendition of the show that reunited the original cast would be a huge draw for TV viewers given the massive popularity of Hamilton since its debut back in 2016. The Hamilton producers may be hesitant to go forward with these plans since a TV version could undermine ticket sales on Broadway, on the regional tour, and at the international sit-down performances. A live TV version of Hamilton could also interfere with plans to release a movie taping of the original 2016 performance, that includes Lin Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Phillipa Soo. If producers are willing to take these risks, a successful Hamilton production would encourage TV network executives to take more chances on live-Broadway shows and that would help continue to deliver Broadway shows to everyday viewers.