Saturday, May 2, 2015

The last national telethon has retired

USA Today and other media outlets reported on Friday that the Muscular Dystrophy Association has decided to end their annual telethons, which had been reduced in size the last few years after Jerry Lewis was ousted as National Chairman in 2010. Plans call for fund-raising efforts to continue online for the foreseeable future.

The telethon business model has been in decline the last several years. Locally, what had been a telethon for United Cerebral Palsy now supports Albany's Center for Disability Services, and gets the last Sunday in January from the local Fox affiliate, which took it over from WTEN several years ago. By that time, the overnight format had been discontinued, as WTEN, the ABC affiliate, had initiated the Sunday-only format that Fox affiliate WXXA, which shares the news department with WTEN, adopted when they took over the telethon.

What the future holds for CBS affiliate WRGB's annual MDA Cares special, which would be in its 3rd year this year, after MDA disbanded its syndicated network in favor of moving their telethon to ABC for the final two years, is unclear at this point. An MDA spokesman said that "it's not a 21-hour world anymore". Maybe, but the way MDA disrespected Lewis, who founded the telethon nearly 50 years ago, suggests that their current hierarchy isn't really interested in continuing the tradition. Granted, with newspapers & magazines turning their readership in the direction of their websites, MDA is taking that same route. Gone are the days of Lewis, backed by a gazillion stars and pushing himself to exhaustion, casting aside the image of the legendary clown of radio, movies, and television, charming viewers. 

The catchphrase, oft spoken by Ed McMahon, "Stay up with Jerry and watch the stars come out!", was retired with Lewis, but Lewis' departure also must've taken millions of viewers with him. It's the only real reason MDA came to their decision on Friday.

I'd not be surprised if, at home, we'll still have a telethon.

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