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A Duck-Billed Platypus

The other day I got an email commenting on my nostalgic post last June about the old Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Telethon.

I spent seven years at CMN, five of the them writing the Telethon. In those days it was 21 hours of live TV that aired on more than 225 TV stations in the U.S. and Canada.

In effect, the person said, “alright smart guy, what would you do to return the CMN Telethon (now called Celebration) to its glory days?”

Let me be clear. The email didn’t come from anyone at Children's Miracle Network. And I'm not privy to what the management at CMN and the show’s producers have in mind for Celebration in the near or distant future.

Here’s how I responded:
  • CMN needs to decide who the audience is for the Telethon (or who they want it to be). The whole time I wrote the telethon I never got a straight answer to that question. When I left, the Telethon was loaded up with male professional athletes. They were great for the sponsors. But were athletes more likely to get the phones ringing? I doubted it then and now. I guarantee that a satisfactory answer to the question of who the show’s audience is helps answer every other question, too. For instance, suppose CMN decides that the audience is Gen Y. Then the show needs a Facebook account. It must be interactive and have loads of other new media elements. Maybe they ask people to submit their own elements for the Telethon or enable a blog campaign. If they decide it’s women 35-54, then the show must continually emphasize trust in the hospitals and the use of funds. Etc.

  • Decide what the goals for the Telethon are. Is it to build top-of-mind awareness for CMN or the hospitals? Develop donors for the future? Raise money that weekend? Cement the relationship with the stations? Stroke the sponsors? Reward their employees? Chances are it’s all those things and more. So the question becomes, what’s the prioritized order?

  • Reconsider every host based on who the audience is.

  • The awards show format mixed with telethon elements is a platypus; neither beast nor foul. CMN needs to choose one or the other and quit trying to split the difference. And they should think very hard before choosing the awards show format. There’s no audience for award shows like Celebration as it’s currently constituted except a narrowly-defined internal audience. The only awards shows that work are the music shows; the various country music awards, MTV’s show, etc. ESPN’s Sportsman/Women of the year is a notable exception and one that CMN probably can’t duplicate because they don’t have the built-in audience that ESPN does.

  • Interject some light back into the Telethon. Literally. The location in the Orlando hotel room is bloodless. And dark. Part of the wonder of the CMN Telethon back in the day was its location out-of-doors at Disneyland’s Videopolis. Under the warm California sun the Telethon looked brighter, more hopeful and different than any competitor.

  • Position the CMN Telethon against the MDA Telethon by making it squeaky clean. The Jerry Lewis Telethon is slightly edgy; Jerry just can’t stop himself. Don’t try and follow his lead. Note I didn’t say bland. The CMN Telethon can still be fun, exciting, and cool, without being milquetoast.

  • Own up to being a telethon. I said it in my original blog post and it’s true, there’s 500 channels and programming of every kind. But not one thing on the air like the old CMN Telethon.

  • Test everything. Celebration is entirely pre-produced and packaged. And so it’s possible to think of it as a type of “direct response television.” The direct response TV folks (think late-night informercials, or long-form charity appeals) test everything: show approaches, hosts, celebrities, entertainment, scripts, shooting and editing techniques, and various emotional appeals (CMN calls ‘em ‘Miracle Stories’). CMN could/should take a page from direct response TV.
Do those eight things (and do them well) and the Children’s Miracle Network Telethon would return to its glory days.


Anonymous said…
I loved this!! It was nice to see someone with some solid suggestions, not just "it needs to change." Thanks for the blog!

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