How Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden Special Became Appointment Viewing — and Benefitted From an Accidental Early Cutoff: A Variety FYC Streaming Room Panel

How Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden Special Became Appointment Viewing — and Benefitted From an Accidental Early Cutoff: A Variety FYC Streaming Room Panel

When Billy Joel’s camp decided to commemorate his 100th show of a mega-residency at Madison Square Garden with a television special, the question arose of whether to go with a major streamer or a major broadcast network. But there was little doubt in the end that they would go with the most populist possible pick, as the producers of “Billy Joel: The 100th Live at Madison Square Garden” explained in a panel discussion for the Variety FYC Streaming Room.

“No one has ever sold out a hundred shows at Madison Square Garden, and I don’t think anybody ever will,” said Steve Cohen, a cohort of Joel’s for about 50 years who is one of the show’s executive producers. “It’s a unicorn event… (The) idea was, hey, if we don’t show this to people, the people in the Midwest or in St. George, Utah, are not gonna know about this incredible achievement… We could have gone to Netflix or any of those other streamers and put this on there. But we are all fans of old-school, Sunday night appointment television. And Billy is a man of the people, and it’s not bullshit. He really wants to give back… It was probably financially a little bit less of a payday for Billy, because the streamer budgets tend to be higher. But at the end of the day, (we) wanted this to be the shot heard around the world. And, thanks to the local network (affiliates) taking the air back,” Cohen laughs, “we got two bites of that apple, too.”

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By “two bites of the apple,” Cohen is referring to the fact that CBS ended up broadcasting the Joel special twice. With the first airing, a mistake was made in the eastern time zone that cut the singer-songwriter off, mid-song, during “Piano Man,” to let local stations put on their late-night news, after sports programming earlier in the day had caused the network special to run overtime. There was a resulting uproar that made national headlines, and CBS quickly reacted by scheduling a second airing of the show five nights later, resulting in an impressive total of 10 million broadcast viewers, apart from the tally the special picked up on Paramount+.

Cohen was one of six panelists joining Variety for this lively conversation, along with fellow executive producer Barry Ehrmann, director/executive producer Paul Dugdale, lighting designer Mark Foffano, audio producer/co-executive producer Brian Ruggles and the Billy Joel band’s longtime lead guitarist, Tommy Byrnes. Watch the entire conversation here.

Having the network accidentally pull the plug early on Joel, and then schedule an immediate rerun due to fan outrage, couldn’t have been a better publicity stunt if it had been planned as one… which, of course, everyone involved swears it wasn’t. “At the end of the whole thing, I kept saying, you know, if Colonel Parker was alive, this would’ve been something he would’ve pulled with Elvis,” Cohen laughed.

“It was a super win-win for us,” he continued. “And I’ve got to give props to CBS because they did not skip a beat. I got a call the next morning, and they not only scheduled a rebroadcast five days later, but they said that they would promote it as a premier event again. They put the same amount of spots on the air, and literally put their shoulder behind it. That also, I think, is the benefit of doing network television, because they’re a behemoth and they know how to do all of that stuff. It worked out great for them, too, because they had another big night of variety television.”

This special was a culmination — for now — of a great deal of years put in by most of the team members represented on the panel. Ruggles has been with Joel for 52 years, and it’s been almost 50 for Cohen, who claims, “we were in diapers, I think. WIth Brian and I, our nicknames in the early days were Dr. Sound and Dr. Lights, because Billy sort of trusted us to be the front-of-house eyes and ears for him. It was the logical progression really, after 50 years and thousands of shows in both stadiums and arenas, to be the guys who could interpret this and deliver it to a director (Dugdale) to film.”

Said Byrnes, the guitarist, “I’ve been playing guitar with Billy since the first week of April in 1990, so I’ve been with him 34 years, 45 days and 28 minutes” he laughs — “or close to that. Obviously it’s the greatest gig I’ve ever had.” But not everyone on this panel goes back quite as far. Said Fuffano, “I’ve been with the Billy family for 25 years, so I’m the kid in the group.”

Obviously there is something there that has to do with “A Matter of Trust,” to quote a Joel song title. Said Byrnes, “You have to try to lose this gig. You have to prove to Billy that you’re not loyal, that you’ve lost the faith, that you really don’t wanna be here. I know because I tried my best, every way I could think of, to get thrown outta his band,” he joked. “It just doesn’t work… It’s a testament that he’ll stick with as long as you stick with him.”

They stuck with their vision of capturing one show — the actual 100th — as opposed to an amalgam of performances that could draw from the best performances over a series of nights. Joel has had different guests on different nights, too, but of course they stuck with the ones who showed up that particular night, Sting and Jerry Seinfeld. Having the former musician on stage resulted in a special rendition of “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” “and Billy couldn’t have written a better song for Sting,” said Byrnes.

There was little time for true pre-production on the special, but since the principals had already been lighting and recording the MSG shows every night as Joel did them, that served as the real pre-production.

“There was a spider cam that was obviously flying through the air and showing the whole room,” said Dugdale. “And part of the aim for the space as a whole was to kind of match the lighting in the room, and the way that the architecture and the way that the bowl looks, to the stage lighting, so that the whole space becomes the kind of performance area, in a way.”

Noted Foffano, “It was just a natural progression to make the audience an expansion of the stage canvas. It was actually rather easy to do, because we’re the fourth franchise of Madison Square Garden. We had 200 lights that were part of the sports franchises of the Garden that they allowed us to use, so there was plenty of audience light to have that ability to expand things.”

As for Joel himself, “for the majority of the show, he sits at the piano. And the piano does move,” Dugdale pointed out. “But we were really keen to try and bring movement to Billy. So in all of the vocal shots, mid shots, we were able to have those just gently moving, constantly developing, so that the frames’ composition starts in one way with one background and ends with another. Everything is constantly moving and just changing to really engage the audience. You’re constantly going on an adventure.”

Said Cohen, “The piano’s on a turntable, and Billy controls that. And one of the things that’s funny about him is, you can’t script it. The minute you try and ask him to not move it, he’ll move the piano. The time you ask him to move it, he won’t move it. So basically what we had to do is create these multiple backgrounds that Paul was talking about that would always look good whenever the piano would move. So we had to be sort of planning things, but they had to be organic enough that they could be flexible when that move would happen.”

The set list was interesting, and that is mostly Cohen’s domain, surprisingly. “As far as the set list goes, that’s been a Steve thing forever,” said Byrnes, who noted that Joel is happy to have someone else handle it. “Stevewrites the set list and then Brian and myself argue with him about it, because sometimes I feel like he’s just out to get me. Because he’ll write a set list where the first 13 songs have 13 guitar changes in them. And I’m like, you’re killing me. Can we do two in a row (with the same guitar)?”

Sometimes deeper tracks make the list, like they did with “Vienna” for this particular performance, and it was important to the team to include a non-single like that, even as a two-and-a-half-hour show had to get trimmed down to about 90 minutes for broadcast.

“It was, what are the best-sounding deep cuts?” said Cohen. “Of the hits that we do every single night, how many of them do we need to include? And the fact that we had to carve this up intoeight segments, when you cut to a commercial, you have to figure out, you know, is it a two-song segment or a single-song segment?

We got a performance of ‘Still Rock and Roll’ that trumped the performance of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ so we cut ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ in lieu of a better performance that Billy delivered that night. We needed to have a little bit of wiggle room on shifting those songs… if it was ‘Vienna’ or ‘Just the Way You Are.’… I kept looking at, if you’ve never been there, what would the experience be like? It’d be hits, deep tracks, Billy’s personality, Billy’s funny little businesses, a guest star and the audience. And how do we get all of that into something that encompasses everything we’ve always done?”

They believe they brought the real experience to home viewers. “It’s like Billy’s playing in a piano bar that has 20,000 people in it,” said Ruggles. That includes knowing, after so many shows, that if Joel sings “Only the Good Die Young,” the whole audience is going to shout out the part about “the nice white dress” and the party at a confirmation, and plan to optimally capture that on camera and an audio. “We have 20,000 background singers on any given night,” said Byrnes.

The person at the switch at the network might have had their own ideas about trimming the setlist, when it came to throwing back to local affiliates. That person may deserve a raise.

Ehrmann said, “I was watching with my wife, and I’ve seen this show probably 120 times in post-production, and … I gave her a special thanks (in the credits). So I’m watching the show with her, and all I wanted her to do was see her name on the screen. And then all of a sudden, boom, we went into the news and it went from a giant WTF to, you know, gold. I mean, it was an outrage on the internet.” He likened it to the very pre-internet stir when a network cut off a Jets game to go to an airing of “Heidi.” “I remember as an 8-year-old, watching the Jets get cut off, and I was like, oh, history’s repeating itself. And it just turned into gold for us, and for Billy, and for the fans. CBS did the right thing, and they made a public apology, and then they rebroadcast on Friday night, and we got in front of 10 million people. I mean, how could you ask for anything more?”

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