What do last Friday’s Democratic debates, Sunday’s Oscars, and tonight’s episode of The Conners have in common, besides the fact that Roseanne Barr wasn’t invited to any of them?
These are just three examples of television in its oldest and purest expression — live. Not “live to tape,” not “live before a studio audience,” not even “live except on the West Coast.” We’re talking live live.
Even with an endless menu of on-demand shows at our fingertips, the allure of live TV has never faded. A live telecast can still command the largest audiences, the gaudiest press coverage and the wickedest tweetstorms. People who swear that all viewers do is binge-watch are probably underestimating how much live TV viewing they do — about four and a half hours per day on average, way more than DVRs, smartphones, and tablets combined, according to Nielsen.
Live TV is to Facebook Live what writing is to typing. While wannabe broadcasters ramble into their phones, performers on live television deliver lines off cue cards (or, even more courageously, from memory), hand out trophies in a slippery environment where things can and do go horribly wrong, call audacious plays, and stage classic plays. When a TV show wants to make a statement, it does a live episode (see: 30 Rock, ER and The West Wing), although sometimes that statement is, “Please watch or we’ll be cancelled” (see: Undateable).
If you’re of a certain age, live television means much more than news, sports, and the occasional Norman Lear revival. Until the early 1970s, a great deal of what went out over the airwaves was live and local to whatever city you lived in or near, from kiddie shows and interview programs to the Million-Dollar Movie and Bowling for Dollars. I still remember how miraculous it felt to have a clown on Denver’s KWGN personally wish me a happy birthday.
The very first television broadcast happened in 1936, inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and of course it was live. NBC had brought in press and advertisers to show off the glorious future of mass communication, and wanted to make a strong impression. So it paid Eddie Albert and Grace Bradt, then a popular radio duo, to write and act a script from Studio 3H, with scorching hot klieg lights bearing down on them. As network executives nervously looked on, the VIPs squinted at the flickering telecast on 12-inch screens in another room. Live TV was never more unpredictable.
Or less. Three floors up and 44 years later, a young comedian named David Letterman hosted a live morning show. Though the ratings were lousy and the show disappeared after a few months, Letterman leveraged his brief time in the daytime into a second and more permanent hosting gig. One of the ways he did this was by turning comedy gold out of the technical failures and physical mishaps that frequently popped up on air, like this classic fail that he later milked for laughs on a slightly higher-rated program:
Later in the Eighties, Dick Clark created a small empire out of recycling TV bloopers, but he was not the first to realize the value of this cheap entertainment. That was Kermit Schafer who, starting in the 1960s, obtained the audio screwups from radio and TV shows (or, if he couldn’t, just re-enacted the goofs) for vinyl records that sold in the millions.
Vinyl is actually a pretty good analogy for live TV today. What it lacks in technical perfection, it makes up for in what the audiophiles call “warmth.” There’s an intimacy and authenticity to live broadcasting, no matter how well choreographed, that no technical improvement can ever replace. I remember a sales rep at a broadcasters’ show once explain to me that during live hurricane coverage, viewers got upset if they couldn’t watch patchy, low-quality video of the reporter being knocked around by the storm. If the coverage wasn’t crappy, it might be fake.
Yes, watching TV in 4K is cool, but 4K videos don’t go viral. Yet something as innocuous as Janelle Monae’s wardrobe malfunction at the Oscars can spark its own social justice movement on Twitter. That’s why live TV will outlive the DVR, just as vinyl outlived cassette tapes and will one day put CDs in the grave.
It’s also half the reason why SNL is still with us. (Eddie Murphy is the other half.) By now I imagine most viewers are aware that everything they see on the show — the sketches as well as the news-driven bits — comes together in the 72 hours before air, with just a single dress rehearsal. The anticipation for live TV never gets old, which probably explains why, in 2017, NBC finally decided to start airing SNL live in all U.S. time zones, including stations in the west that used to delay it.
The vast majority of live TV airs on cable, mostly sports, because who doesn’t want to see Niagara and Siena carry on their storied basketball rivalry? But if you want to catch the best of the best in live television, you only need access to your local network affiliates. That may mean an internet connection and a subscription to a streaming service that includes, somewhat inaccurately, “live TV” (it’s actually just TV TV) — but honestly, you don’t even need that. For years I’ve gotten along fine with an outdoor antenna pointed at my city’s TV towers. I haven’t missed an Olympics or Idol finale yet.
Kidding! I’ve skipped all the Idol finales since David Cook won. But at least I knew I had the option of watching along with millions of others in real time. For all of the advances in tech, for all the declarations that people want to watch shows on their own schedule, one rule of television hasn’t changed since 1936. When it matters, in the immortal words of Bill O’Reilly, do it live!!
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.