The Kennedy Center Honors is a program that fans of the performing arts look forward to every year, perhaps because there's not a lot of opportunity to see multidisciplinary arts on broadcast networks' prime-time schedules.
This year's telecast, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday, honors singer/songwriter Merle Haggard, composer Jerry Herman, choreographer/director Bill T. Jones, songwriter/musician Paul McCartney, and talk show host/brand Oprah Winfrey.
Caroline Kennedy serves as host for the eighth consecutive year, opening the ceremony by quoting her father, President John Kennedy: "Nearly 50 years ago, my father said that a nation reveals itself not only by the individuals it produces, but by the individuals it honors. We are here tonight to honor and celebrate accomplished artists who have enriched the life of our country."
Executive producer George Stevens, Jr., co-created the awards in 1978 with Nick Vanoff, and Stevens continues to produce and co-write The Kennedy Center Honors.
He said the process of picking honorees begins early each year with a Kennedy Center artist committee of about 100 people who send in recommendations to an executive committee, which chooses the five honorees.
"Once that's done, we sit down and start to figure out what's the most imaginative way to honor these peoples' lives and careers," Stevens said in a phone interview last week. "The miracle of this show is that each year when you select five new people, it becomes a brand new experience. Their lives open doors to creative opportunities to bring their careers to life."
Other luminaries are on hand to help in the endeavor as President Obama and first lady Michelle watch from the traditional president's seats. Julia Roberts introduces the tribute to Winfrey. Stevens said comedian Chris Rock brings down the house by saying he's impressed to be looking up at Winfrey, the most powerful person in the world, "and sitting two seats from her is Barack Obama."
Getting the honorees to show up is rarely a problem, although a scheduling conflict a few years ago prevented McCartney from participating at the time. That's been remedied this year. His tribute begins with the band No Doubt performing a medley of McCartney's hits.
The Kennedy Center Honors was taped earlier this month and runs longer than CBS' time slot for it, so inevitably some elements get cut.
"We kind of plan it in advance," Stevens said. "We know the speeches will be longer in the room at the event than they will be on television."
There was a mild political hubbub when the recent Mark Twain Prize on PBS failed to include recipient Tina Fey's commentary on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but Stevens said he did not anticipate anyone getting upset about what gets trimmed.
Stevens created the program after working at the U.S. Information Agency during the Kennedy presidency.
"I was inspired by President Kennedy's appreciation for the arts," he said, "and his sense of the importance of the recognition of the arts in American life."
• Channel surfing: Showtime will have a free weekend Jan. 7-10 timed to coincide with the series premiere of Episodes (Friends star Matt LeBlanc's TV return), the fourth season premiere of Californication, and the premium television premiere of The Twilight Saga: New Moon. … Comedy Central has renewed Ugly Americans for a 14-episode second season. … E! will air Sex and the City reruns at 8 p.m. weekdays beginning Jan. 3. … Fox has canceled Friday night drama The Good Guys. .. Saturday Night Live returns with a new episode Jan. 8 hosted by Jim Carrey with musical guest the Black Keys.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen writes for the Post-Gazette.