MDA telecast raised more — a lot more — with Jerry Lewis in 2010 than without him in 2011

Steve Lawrence, Edyie Gorme and Jerry Lewis during the MDA Telethon at the Sahara Hotel. 9/6/93
Nevada News Bureau

2010 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

A year ago, the Muscular Dystrophy Association announced a pledge total exceeding $61 million from its revamped fundraising TV show.

The exact figure was $61,491,393. Aside from the somewhat staggering magnitude of the amount raised, that sum carried enormous symbolic impact: The $61 million exceeded the $58,919,838 pledged to the organization during the final year of the MDA Telethon at South Point in Las Vegas, an event that marked the end of Jerry Lewis’ tenure as host of the show.

Over the next several months, Lewis was cut out of the organization entirely, ending a half-century affiliation. The organization’s new direction and streamlined telecast has resulted in the three-hour show airing today from 8 to 11 p.m. titled the “MDA Show of Strength.” The program was pre-produced and taped in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville. Lewis was never brought back to the six-hour version of the show that aired last year, though a montage of highlighted moments of him hosting the show was featured in the broadcast.

The goal of lopping the show from its former 21½-hour length was to provide a tighter, more energetic telecast -- “more sizzle, less snivel” is how one MDA official put it. The end result would be more money raised, of course.

But according to the MDA’s 990 tax returns, posted on the organization’s website, the 2011 show did not raise more money than the 2010 broadcast. The MDA fell short of 2010 by quite a lot, actually -- $18 million.

Copies of the MDA’s 2011 tax returns show a figure of $30,683,816 listed in the box marked “TELETHON” in the “Fundraising Events” section of the document. That means the show took in just half of the $61 million it reported to have been pledged from the 2011 show on Labor Day Weekend last year.

To put this information in perspective, collecting millions of dollars less than what is initially pledged is common for the MDA. According to the organization’s own tabulations, it raised $48,790,550 in actual fundraising money in 2010, Lewis’ final year as host, with $58 million pledged, a $10 million difference. That’s an 83-percent return rate, which is actually a pretty good result over the MDA’s recent history.

From 1999-2010, the organization never took in less than 73 percent of the money pledged from the annual telethon, each hosted by Lewis. The low mark over that period was 1999, when the amount pledged was a little more than $53 million and the amount collected was a little less than $39 million, a 73-percent return rate. In 2005, when additional money streamed in after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the organization actually took in more than $56 million when $55 million was pledged, a 103-percent return rate.

Considering that success rate over a period spanning more than a decade, the 50-percent figure from last year is remarkably low. The $31 million in actual money raised also is the lowest figure, by more than $8 million, raised by the MDA since ’99.

This year’s show is halved from a year ago and features Carrie Underwood, Gavin DeGraw, One Republic, Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas and Carole King in recorded appearances. There will be no tote board, as viewers will be asked to donate over the phone, via text and online to help fund efforts to find treatments and cures for neuromuscular diseases.

In October 2010, when the MDA's new telethon format was announced, then-MDA President Gerald Weinberg said, “The talent we’ll be attracting will be even bigger since every moment of our primetime show will have a tremendous audience.”

But if the idea is to improve the results from the years Jerry Lewis fronted the MDA Telethon, the MDA has fallen short. The numbers don't lie.

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