A New Golden Age of Live TV
As TV continues to decline due to more and more people opting for online streaming, live TV has slowly begun to creep back into primetime. This has been done with varying success, but as of yet has done very well in terms of ratings. The question, though, is why now? Why is there a sudden influx in live programming?
In TV’s heyday, every show was performed and broadcast live. This was strictly for technological reasons. At the time, the primitive technology didn’t allow for pre-taped segments or programs to be broadcast. Every show was done live. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are big reasons as to why that changed. Though there had been shows with pre-taped segments when I Love Lucy first premiered, the idea of shooting on film and cutting the show so as to air it at a later date was a revolutionary idea. They created the technology that was needed to accomplish this. As a result, live TV quickly became largely a thing of the past by the mid-’60s.
For a few years, there had always been a few random live episodes of shows here and there, usually sitcoms. For example, The Drew Carey Show did a live episode for three consecutive seasons from 1999 – 2001, and 30 Rock did two live episodes in 2010 and 2012, but there was never a large presence of live television after the early 1960s.
In 2012, NBC announced that it was trying an experiment: performing a Broadway show live in primetime. What was berthed from this was The Sound of Music Live! Starring Carrie Underwood playing Julie Andrews’ iconic role of Maria Von Trapp, the musical was performed and broadcast live on December 5, 2013. Though it was panned by critics and fans of both the classic film and Broadway musical alike, it drew over 18 million viewers, which was ultimately the most important thing for NBC. This opened up the door for more live television.
The success of The Sound of Music Live! prompted NBC to try a live musical again the following Christmas with Peter Pan Live! Once again, the musical was panned by critics and fans of the Broadway musical. Though the ratings weren’t as good as The Sound of Music Live!, they were still good enough to reinforce that NBC musicals would become an annual yuletide tradition.
This tradition was continued in 2015 with The Wiz Live!, which was the first NBC musical to be well-received by critics and fans of the Broadway show alike. The ratings were in between The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live! Though there has been no announcement of what this Christmas’ live musical will be on NBC, it is virtually guaranteed after the success of The Wiz Live! that there will be a fourth consecutive live musical from NBC.
Though NBC has been the largest proponent of live primetime television in the last few years, FOX decided to try its hand at a live musical after seeing the success of NBC’s first two musicals. This January, FOX aired Grease Live. The musical differed from NBC’s three musicals in that it was much more ambitious in comparison, with multiple sets, quick wardrobe changes, two different sound stages, a live audience, and even an outdoor element. The musical was overwhelmingly well-received by critics and fans, and over 12 million people tuned in to watch. FOX is already planning another live musical to air this Easter, entitled The Passion. It’s a modern retelling of the life of Jesus, and is directed and written by Tyler Perry.
Though musicals have been the bulk of the resurgence of live primetime television, NBC has done something ambitious. After a very successful live episode last season, NBC renewed the sitcom Undateable for a third season with the caveat that every episode of the season would be aired live. All 13 episodes were performed live twice, once for the east coast and once for the west coast.
If a show wasn’t drawing in at least 10 million viewers, it was time for the network to reevaluate the show. Nowadays, networks long for 10 million viewers.
But why now? Why start reverting back to the way of the ‘50s and ‘60s? I personal believe that it is a last ditch effort by networks to increase ratings. It wasn’t that long ago that nine million viewers wasn’t that great of a number. If a show wasn’t drawing in at least 10 million viewers, it was time for the network to reevaluate the show. Nowadays, networks long for 10 million viewers. Doing programs live almost always increases the chances of having good ratings. Live shows are event television, which there is a soaring lack of these days. People are also tuning in to see if there are going to be any mistakes made by the cast. Live television is like NASCAR: the vast majority of people are tuning because they’re hoping to see a wreck.
Live television is no longer a thing of the past. It is quickly becoming a real viable form of television once again. Networks are quickly becoming eager to try live television for the increase in ratings, and viewers are watching to see if something goes wrong. In a world where television is vanishing, this could be a welcome lifeline for networks. Who knows, we may even see TV go back to its roots and be 100 percent live in the not-too-distant future. That would be quite a sight to see!
Matt is a 23-year-old producer, director, and writer from DFW, Texas, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, TV, and Digital Media from Texas Christian University and is now an apprentice at the Center for Creative Media. His ultimate goal is to bring glory to God as a showrunner on TV. He is fueled by laughter, music, and donuts. Lots and lots of donuts.