QJPop: The revitalization of live TV

There was a time when the most interesting thing happening on live television was David Letterman forgetting the name of the starlet he was interviewing; or — God help us — a nip slip. However, since 2010 the once dormant live television spectacle has awoken, spreading its fun and fervour into a television schedule sagging under the weight of 80,000 crime dramas and American Idol. Networks are now taking greater risks with live television, and are being rewarded with big publicity and even bigger ratings.

This comes as an especially big surprise after “event television” was thought to have been overcome by the convenience of DVRs, Netflix, Hulu, and other online streaming networks. The shared experience of event television was replaced with personalisation, and regular television programing was doomed to irrelevance.

NBC’s 30 Rock, the whip-smart comedy that made Tina Fey a household name, was unphased however, and produced a live episode in 2010. The episode, simply titled “Live Show”, was performed and broadcasted in front of a live audience and included a host of celebrity cameos. The episode was a success, earning the highest rating of the season at 6.7 million American viewers.
Since then NBC has championed live television through its late night talk shows including The Late Night and The Tonight Show. The magical combination of the right personalities and formats has transformed the two programs into must-see events. Jimmy Fallon debuted as the host of The Tonight Show in February of this year, and was best described by my parents to my grandmother: “He’s just like Johnny Carson —smart, funny, sincere.” Since its opening the show has sustained its initial success, night after night producing viral YouTube clips of various celebrities laughing candidly in interviews, performing in outrageous skits, and competing in whatever game The Tonight Show team has dreamt up.

In December of 2013 the live broadcast of The Sound of Music solidified the marketability of live televised spectacles. Indeed, the hills were alive with the sound of 18.62 million viewers, and the musical was the most watched program of the night. The production, regardless of its many criticisms (especially those concerning Carrie Underwood’s portrayal of Maria), secured the live broadcast of Peter Pan in December of 2014, and The Music Man in 2015.
Most recently The Maya Rudolph Show, a revival of the 1960s and 70s style variety program, aired on NBC with solid ratings. The show was a gamble for NBC, but connected with younger audiences unfamiliar with the variety of stylings of the original performers like The Muppets and Carol Burnett. While the long term impact of The Maya Rudolph Show on the genre remains to be seen, the numbers are self-evident. The live-television spectacle is here to stay, and the critics misjudged the future of television.

“Anything can happen live” is not just a cliché, it’s a promise. In a television landscape of predictability, live programming is a breath of fresh televised air. The elation I feel watching an actor on Saturday Night Live desperately trying not to laugh can never be matched by scripted punchlines and dated, soul-less laugh-tracks. Moreover, the joy of witnessing something transform from a special moment on live TV to a world-wide trending topic on Twitter is a magical journey of modernity. Just when we thought we were too individualistic and too alienated from each other to share mass experiences, live television, in the age of social media, is bringing us all back together.

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