MDA Cancels Telethon After Half-Century Run

May 1, 2015       Mark Hrywna      

The 58-year run of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s (MDA) Labor Day telethon is over.

After several years of tweaking its signature event, MDA today announced that it would discontinue production of the broadcast telethon this year, instead focusing on “more digital and mobile channels for consumer engagement and activation” amid changing view patterns and philanthropic giving.

“The decision to end our beloved telethon was not made lightly,” MDA President and CEO Steven Derks said. “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission,” he said in a press release.

The organization said it plans to continue to share stories of MDA families “throughout the year via digital channels as part of an emerging year-round plan to revitalize its brand, connect with donors more frequently, strengthen family support, and attract and recognize sponsors in new ways.”

The telethon first aired in 1956, hosted by Jerry Lewis, who became the face of the organization over the years, emceeing the event until 2010, and his comedy partner Dean Martin. Last year’s telethon raised $56.9 million. It raised a record $65 million in 2008.

In 2012, the telethon became known as the “MDA Show of Strength Telethon,” and rather than 21 ½ hours of live programming featured a six-hour broadcast including both live and taped segments. That was shortened to three hours in 2012 and two hours the last two years, both of which were exclusively broadcast on ABC.

Chicago, Ill.-based MDA has shifted in recent years to event fundraising. Last year, it launched an endurance fundraising initiative, with walkers and runners participating in marathons and other endurance events to raise donations. It also started the MDA Muscle Walk, which has raised more than $20 million since its inception in 2011.

“We have ambitious plans to leverage our history, the compelling stories of our families and our record of innovation — just like we did decades ago when we introduced the telethon and cause-marketing for nonprofit organizations — as we continue to use creative ways to connect with supporters and deliver more value for our sponsors, never forgetting the families who are at the very heart of our mission,” Derks said.