Vax Live, airing this weekend, might strike you as just the latest example of “cause TV,” another overblown, celebrity-packed extravaganza simulcasting over multitudes of channels in scores of nations to an audience only a fool would try counting. Actually, it’s a slightly different creature than the telethons and Live Aids of years past, although it certainly follows in their footsteps.
The cause TV event has evolved over the decades, but it’s basically the same charity-auction-meets-benefit-concert idea, super-sized to the ridiculous proportions that makes TV TV. Vax Live will feature a lineup of celebrities and musical guests who performed at a concert in Los Angeles taped last weekend (so it’s actually Vax Live-to-Tape). Given that it's airing on three different broadcast networks, it's likely to attract some kind of an audience on TV this coming weekend, at least among Americans whose fascination with Prince Harry, the telecast’s highest-wattage star, knows no bounds. But here's betting an even larger audience will be watching online.
In 1949 Milton Berle was live on NBC for 16 hours straight, raising money for cancer research. Somebody called it a “telethon” and the name stuck. Now, that may sound like humble beginnings for cause TV, except for one thing — Uncle Miltie was the biggest star on television at the time, and NBC was one of only two national networks with any kind of reach. Granted, fewer than 10 percent of American households had a TV set and the NBC network only went as far west as St. Louis. Yet the Berle telethon earned national attention and raised a million bucks, not exactly chicken feed back then.
Telethons reached their apex in the 1970s, mostly raising money to combat diseases that afflicted children (but not prickly heat). TV stations liked them because they could look like heroes while plugging low-rated parts of their schedule with fresh entertainment, even if the stars were Vegas has-beens and the weatherman that viewers saw every day anyway. Jerry Lewis did, after all, raise $2 billion for MDA, and despite his appalling tactics and personality, he deserves credit for muscular dystrophies receiving more press and research money than almost any other rare disease.
With telethons long out of favor, the 1980s saw a new approach: the star-studded mega-event. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure put persuaded some of the greatest names in rock to perform for free at Live Aid on July 13, 1985. Thanks in part to MTV’s global reach, Live Aid aired worldwide and reached an estimated 40 percent of the planet’s population. Three months later, John Cougar, Willie Nelson and Neil Young put together Farm Aid. The next year, Comic Relief was born.
What the previous generations of cause TV had in their favor was the scarcity of air time. When I was a kid we had two local TV stations, and every Labor Day Weekend you knew what was on one of them. Even in MTV’s heyday there were less than 40 channels on the average American TV dial. Starting in the 1990s, media companies began simulcasting cause TV events over multiple platforms and online. Stand Up to Cancer, an entertainment-industry-driven charity, produced a telecast on September 5, 2008, that was seen on all four broadcast networks in the U.S. and in 170 other countries.
But with the boom in online platforms, audiences could no longer be counted on to discover a cause TV event. The charity behind Vax Live is Global Citizen, the same entity behind last year’s worldwide cause TV event, One World Together at Home, a worldwide living room concert best remembered for the Rolling Stones playing a classic tune using air drums. That two-hour telecast was watched by at least 270 million people worldwide, but only 20 million Americans watched it on TV.
Vax Live looks even less glamorous than Together At Home. Despite the presence of actual British royalty and such headliners as J-Lo and, ummmm, some others, Vax Live is not even being simulcast on all four networks. NBC is taking a pass (it aired its own star-studded vaccine awareness special two weeks ago) and Fox is airing Vax Live on a delay. That's surprising, since the event is on a Saturday, a dead night of the week for terrestrial TV (SNL notwithstanding).
Instead of doing broadcast deals across the planet, Global Citizen is leaning primarily on YouTube for the distribution of Vax Live. Partly this reflects how the planet has fractured since the early days of the pandemic. Despite the show’s optimistic subtitle, The Concert to Reunite the World, not everyone is united around the cause of COVID vaccination. Maybe that’s why Vax Live feels more like political than charitable cause TV.
It’s possible that the people who are avoiding getting vaccinated are more reachable online than on trad TV. Getting the world to herd immunity may require content that can be shared across social media platforms. Will Prince Harry's heartfelt plea be enough to persuade your brother-in-law, who forwarded bad info from the anti-vaxx vegan lady in Kansas to all his contacts? Tune in and see!
Vax Live livestreams Saturday May 8th at 8:00 PM ET on YouTube, and airs live on ABC and CBS at that time, with a rebroadcast at 11:00 PM on FOX
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that U.S.A. For Africa's "We Are The World" was recorded in 1984. It was recorded in January 1985.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.