Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, the famous 1983 special on which Michael Jackson debuted his signature moonwalk and Smokey Robinson reunited with the Miracles, is coming to public television via pledge producer and doo-wop showman TJ Lubinsky.
The two-hour program has not aired since its initial broadcast on NBC due to complex rights issues, Lubinsky said. He negotiated a two-year exclusive contract for public television stations to run the entire show.
The list of performers is a who’s who from Motown, the famous Detroit-based record label: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Supremes, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, the Four Tops and more. Hosting is comedian Richard Pryor, then at the height of his career. The show went on to win a Peabody Award and an Emmy for variety program.
Although he was just 11 at the time, Lubinsky vividly remembers watching the special, which featured a series of dazzling performances by entertainers who rarely performed on the same stage. “It was the only time in my life where everybody was talking about the same thing for the next couple days,” he said. “Teachers, kids in school, disc jockeys on the radio were all buzzing. It was just one of those shows.”
Lubinsky also credits the program with sparking his lifelong love of music and the passion to share that with an audience. “That was a defining moment,” he said. “I knew that in some way I had to be a part of all this.” He went on to become one of the most successful pledge program producers in public television. Lubinksy estimates that his music shows have brought in more than $500 million for public broadcasting stations since the first aired in 1998.
He will test Motown during December pledge at four pilot stations: WNET in New York; WETA, Arlington, Va.; KQED, San Francisco; and Maryland Public Television. “It’s important for an event like this that we look at the impacts of scheduling, promotion and how to reach the target audience on many emotional levels,” he said. “Programmers can point out pitfalls. That will really give it the best shot at reaching the most eyeballs.” The finalized show and breaks will go out to the system for use during March pledge as a 119-minute pledge event including four 11:30 breaks.
Premiums include tickets to Motown the Musical, now touring nationally, as well as a DVD of the full concert in newly remastered 5.1 surround sound with more than an hour of bonus material, including the 40-minute documentary The Making of Motown 25 and a performers’ roundtable.
An expanded three-DVD set contains more than six hours of extras, such as outtake songs, footage of a Marvin Gaye rehearsal, and performer and production roundtables. The “My Music” seven-CD set Motown Big Hits & More presents 132 cuts from the label’s other performers, including the Spinners, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Isley Brothers.
Lubinsky spent years working intermittently to secure the special for public TV. “HBO and several big cable companies were also looking at it,” he said. “Rights were much more complicated than for the average show.” Motown founder Berry Gordy owned the program, which involved many individual musicians, groups and songwriters.
Lubinsky thinks his longtime relationship with several major record labels helped him win out in the end. “Trust is a big thing in these deals,” he said. “Rights owners are trusting you with their baby, that you’ll present it well. A lot of people have to have confidence in you.”
He also hopes to someday pull content from his vast musical archive to create weekly non-pledge programming for stations.
Lubinsky envisions expanding his popular nostalgic “My Music” franchise into the regular schedule. “That’s a brand that PBS and member stations can truly claim as uniquely their own,” he said. Programs could feature performer interviews and “where are they now” updates.
While shooting pledge events, Lubinsky also tapes interviews and other content. The program could capture “emotions, triumphs, struggles and challenges that speak to the very core and nature of the human condition, where the ‘payoff’ episode is the pledge special,” he said.
With PBS now working with icon series producers to pledge the National Program Service, Lubinsky noted, such a show seems a natural fit. He’s floated the idea over the years, he added, “but I haven’t been able to align with a PBS champion that sees the potential and can engage others in the process.”