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Tonight’s Kennedy Center Honors Could Be Last of Its Kind as Founding Producer is Ousted

What you won’t see tonight during the Kennedy Center [1] Honors (9pm CBS) is what happened when we all returned from the intermission break at the December 7th taping. The group’s CEO, David Rubenstein, who is also head of the Caryle Group, the largest hedge fund in the world, came out and made some perfunctory comments. Then he thought he was introducing the show’s founding producer, George Stevens Jr., who created the Kennedy Center Honors 37 years ago with Nick Vanoff.

Stevens, who is a very spry 82, on his game, with lovely patrician manners, stepped on stage. He then shocked the audience with the emotional news that, essentially, he’d been ousted after 37 years. “This will be our last show,” he said. He thanked his son Michael who’s worked with him for years and whom he credits for really being the main producer of late. There was literally a gasp in the room. No one knew.

The Kennedy Center Honors was the last bastion of civility on broadcast TV. In a culture now where nothing is taboo, and the lowest of the lowest gets a reality show, it’s hard to believe that once there was theater, ballet, classical music, jazz and opera on regular channels. Now it’s relegated to PBS. The Kennedy Center Honors was the only PBS-like program on a main network. But Rubenstein and new president Deborah Rutter aren’t interested in that, sources say.

“They want something more like the Grammys, but the worst aspects of it,” says a source. “The glitz and the glamor. And young people.” In other words: Taylor Swift presenting an award to Jennifer Aniston. You get the picture.

Tense negotiations were said to having been ongoing since August between Stevens and Rubenstein-Rutter. A few days before the taping, Stevens staff had stopped using Kennedy Center email addresses. Most of the staff did not know the end was coming before Stevens’ speech. Rubenstein didn’t know Stevens was going to address the audience with the news. But George Stevens Jr Productions had already been told they had to be out of the building by the end of the month.

After the show, at an informal gathering in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the 8th floor, the usual post- celebration was like a wake. When Stevens and son finally arrived, all the new honorees (Sting, Lily Tomlin, Tom Hanks, Patricia McBride) rushed to his side, as did many stalwarts who’d been involved with the show and Stevens for years. Steven Spielberg, upon hearing the news, said: “But isn’t the show supposed to be about honoring people who’ve achieved something?” Among many the sentiment was, if it’s called the Kennedy Center Honors, it’s not going to attract the MTV-Facebook-TMZ crowd.

The word now is that CBS and Rubenstein may indeed have brought in Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich, who excels at that show, a different kind of animal. The announcement should come soon. Of course, the producer of the show isn’t in charge of who gets in– that’s a whole separate committee. But watch for a total rebranding, like Kennedy Center specials akin to the new (and poorly rated) Grammy Christmas nominations show, one source suggested to me. We might be far away from LLCoolJ (perpetual Grammy host) giving Kennedy Center awards to Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.