February 2, 2021

It has been a year of virtual professional conferences, virtual ideas festivals, virtual awards shows, even a virtual Democratic National Conventions — which worked out pretty well for the guy they nominated.

Now, with live Mardi Gras canceled and Fat Tuesday just two weeks away, NOLA.com, digital site of The New Orleans Advocate and Times-Picayune, has mounted a 4.5-hour, 90-act show (“Mardi Gras for All, Y’All”) streaming over three days starting Friday, Feb. 12. The event is free.

During the pandemic shutdown a motivated krewe or two may stage a mini-parade, Advocate/Times-Picayune editor Peter Kovacs told me, but that will be a far cry from the five-a-day spectacular in a typical year.

Normally, “people also mingle on Bourbon Street and throughout the French Quarter, but bars are closed,” Kovacs said. “It’s harder (now) to get a drink in New Orleans than anywhere else in Louisiana, which is quite a reversal.”

“The parades have gone on every year, even in 2006, in the aftermath of Katrina,” he said. “There was a police strike in 1979, and some parades were canceled, but others moved to the suburbs.”

In the spirit of finding the next best thing for 2021, NOLA.com and The Advocate/Times-Picayune have slammed together a big, virtual party. It has been monumental to assemble, President Judi Terzotis said. But with the city’s budget 43% dependent on tourism, multiple sponsors quickly climbed on board with hopes that a 2022 Mardi Gras will be back bigger than ever.

“I oversaw events when I was a regional publisher for Gannett,” Terzotis said, “including a big wine festival with Martha Stewart.” And she has done some live events for The Advocate. “But that was middle school compared to this … (definitely) up a notch in difficulty.”

Most of the $1 to $1.2 million budget has gone to production, she said, with tight editing required to keep the show moving crisply through 30 segments a night. The cost of music rights at $1,000 to $3,000 a pop mounted up, too.

Advocate owner John Georges, whose successful family business distributes food wholesale to convenience stores across the country, is a huge New Orleans civic booster. He and his wife, Dathel, bought The Advocate in Baton Rouge and its nascent New Orleans edition nearly a decade ago, eventually acquiring the rival Times-Picayune and its NOLA.com site from Advance Local in 2019.

Georges took no persuading to greenlight the project, Terzotis said, “though he did ask me once to put together an estimate of how much staff time went into it.”

As festival organizers at The Texas Tribune and The Atlantic had told me last summer, Terzotis said that the organization had to jam what would typically have been six months or more of work into just three months.

Talent mostly volunteered — a group including Today co-host Hoda Kotb, whose local broadcasting career included six years in the 1990s at WWL in New Orleans. “Archie Manning is such a pro that we were in and out in 20 minutes; Jimmy Buffett sent us a 21-minute tape,” Terzotis said. Political consultant James Carville and biographer Walter Isaacson will also make appearances.

Predictably, segments will highlight New Orleans food, music and architecture as well as the colorful krewes. There are also sponsors less known to a national audience, Terzotis said, including Mardi Gras World, a tourist attraction and the largest float building company in the country.

In a parallel celebration, “house floats” have been springing up around the city as residents deck out their homes in the style of parade floats.

Besides highlighting the city’s let-the-good-times-roll reputation, I asked Terzotis what’s in it for The Advocate. Not a profit — costs and contributions will roughly balance out. However, with video still a sunrise editorial and advertising medium, she said, “We look at it as a proof of concept — a demonstration of what we can do.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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