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Remembrance of Telethons Past

The Muscular Dystrophy Association's annual Labor Day Telethon is something forever embedded within my childhood memories. I can remember how it would run locally on WCIA (Channel 3 for you townies) all weekend long, often canceling-out some of my favorite weekend programs. My mom would solemnly explain to me that it was for a good cause, and then I'd actually sit and watch a few hours of the thing, and understand that she was right.

Aside from the focus stories on the children with Muscular Dystrophy, there would be that wacky comedian guy hosting the event, and the sidekick dude from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Yes, for those of us old enough to read and comprehend this writing, Jerry Lewis and Ed McMahon are indelibly linked to the MDA Telethon. And for those who grew-up watching it on WCIA, so is Judy Fraser, who was our local MC, a beloved local personality who navigated the phone banks and looked to the camera asking us to donate to help the cause.

I was reminded of all this, not only because it's Labor Day in just two weeks' time, but because the MDA Telethon has been in the news lately, and not in a good way. In fact, it's all made me rather sad.

Recently, while watching some programming on WCIA, the nostalgic sight of Judy Fraser appeared on the screen, inviting us to watch this year's MDA Telethon on Sunday, September 4th, from 7pm to Midnight. I did one of those 1930s-esque double-blinks. A five-hour telethon? And on Sunday, not on Labor Day? What was going on? My first thought was that WCIA had decided not to participate in the full telethon, but then I found the Wikipedia page for the event, and my heart sank upon reading the following:

On October 6, 2010, the MDA announced that the telethon will be trimmed back considerably, to six hours, beginning with the 2011 edition to be televised Sunday, September 4, 2011. This new version of the telethon, to be broadcast from 6 pm to 12 midnight local time, was in response to lagging donations, stations showing only part of the telethon or dropping it altogether, and the less-than-stellar talent in recent telethons—as well as Lewis, now in his mid-80s, devoting less and less time to appearing on-air due his age and health. The telethon, to be seen live in the Eastern Time Zone and tape-delayed in the rest of the country, has been revamped in order to attract more stations to the Love Network (which had shrunk from its peak of 213 stations in 1976 to 190 in 2010), as well as to attract more top celebrities and talent to the show, resulting in more viewers and donations.

I have my doubts. To paraphrase my friend Neil, "You don't get more with less, you get less with less." It seems unfathomable that the Muscular Dystrophy Association can hope to take-in as much as it has during past telethons --- that stretched an entire weekend --- with just six hours on-air. While it may be true that donations were down during recent telethons, it stands to reason that they're going to be down even more with this one. At least we're still participating locally.

Of course, a shortened timespan isn't the only specter looming over the MDA telethon this year. It was abruptly announced on August 3rd that Jerry Lewis is no longer the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and will not be hosting this year's telethon. Lewis, elderly but apparently in fairly-good health, said he would have a full statement the day after the telethon. Then, on August 21st, it was reported that the MDA was reinstating Jerry Lewis with their organization and with the show. This was followed the next day with the news that, no, Mr. Lewis was not re-joining MDA and the telethon.

So, there it is. Our once-beloved MDA Telethon is in shambles. What was once a weekend event is now a six-hour quickie. Co-host Ed McMahon is dead and perennial host Jerry Lewis has been kicked to the curb. I suppose the show will go on, but it's just not the same. Generally speaking, I feel bad for those that stand to benefit from the money raised by the MDA. This recent turn of events does those suffering from Muscular Dystrophy no favors. Personally, I find this to be yet another piece of my childhood pretty much come to an end. It happens. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.


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