With today’s TV listings overflowing with choices, breaking through the clutter is an ever-present dilemma. More and more, networks are airing live “events” to set themselves apart from the pack, with sports taking on new fanfare, more award shows than can be counted, specials, live musicals and now full live series in the scripted “Undateable” and unscripted “Knock Knock Live.”
Broadcasting “live” is as old as television itself, but these days adds an interesting and increasingly attractive component for networks looking for new ways to rise above the primetime competition.
The fact that a live event is an event is a big part of the appeal, says Neil Meron. He and producing partner Craig Zadan have become seasoned veterans of live programming in recent years, with three Oscar telecasts and two live musicals under their belts. Live events are buzzworthy, Meron says. “They’re promotable and networks are always trying to figure out how to get eyeballs.”
The duo have certainly had success bringing eyeballs to NBC, drawing 18.47 million viewers with their inaugural live musical, 2013’s “The Sound of Music: Live!” The two are prepping their third production, “The Wiz: Live!,” after last year’s “Peter Pan: Live!”
The numbers are still a big factor in greenlighting such live events, says Bill Lawrence, executive producer of “Undateable,” however much execs may claim to care about more than just next-day ratings. That show did a live episode to such an enthusiastic response that next season will be all live.
“I think the networks especially look at live television as it stands to beat and raise Nielsen numbers,” he says. “Nielsen still kind of drives the success and failure of a network TV show.”
But, he adds, “part of the appeal (of live television) is that it sounds interesting, and I think that’s the struggle for network TV nowadays.”
“The great thing about live television is you have to watch it live,” says Mark Bracco, executive vice president of programming and development at Dick Clark Prods., and also a producer on Fox’s summer reality series “Knock Knock Live.”
Whether it comes to sporting events, awards shows or otherwise, “you have to be there live because if you’re not, you’re immediately behind on what everyone is talking about,” he says.
“The fact that live TV gives people the opportunity to go to their devices and go to (social) platforms and be part of the action is something that didn’t happen a generation ago,” Meron says. “I think the advent of social media is really enhancing the live-TV experience.”
“Peter Pan: Live!” drew nearly 475,000 tweets through its live broadcasts, seen 106.9 million times — almost twice the engagement of “Sound of Music” (68.7 million) the year before.
Anticipating this, both “Undateable” and “Knock Knock Live” are planning to incorporate social platforms including Twitter and Periscope into their shows as an extra way for viewers to tap into what’s happening on screen.
For creatives like Lawrence, live TV offers a special opportunity to create something unique in the crowded landscape. The plans for an entirely live season of “Undateable” will be a first in network TV since the second season of Fox’s “Roc” in 1992-93.
Like “Roc,” “Undateable” first took on the task of producing just a single live episode. That installment aired in May and Lawrence did not anticipate the fun and success translating into a full season. But with NBC entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt’s support for live entertainment, he says the show’s team is “up to the challenge.”
“We’re driven by stand-up comics who’ve all performed, some of them for 20s of thousands of people live — and one thing we’ve always lamented, we like the show a lot, but we felt that the studio audiences get to see something special.”
The hope, he explains, is to take advantage of being live to offer a new sitcom experience. “I love playing with the medium a little bit,” he says. “I think a mistake would be to just film our normal show.”
Now, “Undateable” can write jokes based on the day or week’s events. “If something happens in the world all the jokes are done on Twitter and Instagram by the time you get home from work. Now we have the opportunity to catch that, and it might be fun.”
Though the project is not without its challenges. Live episodes mean fewer winks to the camera or breaking of the fourth wall, and the team has to begin work in June, months ahead of filming the first episode in October. All of the season’s scripts will be finished, Lawrence says, to allow plenty of time weekly to rewrite and adjust for timing during the live shows.
One of the largest obstacles to overcome with live television is the coordination of an expert team, Bracco says. With “Knock Knock” teams live in different cities across the country, and in a studio, production must run like a well-oiled machine.
“(The challenge) is making sure you have the coordination and the team that knows how to do live television, because inevitably things happen and you’re going to have to take left turns.”
And of course, talent has to be willing to take the plunge without the safety net of editing or multiple takes. “What you see is what you get, especially with the musicals,” Zadan says. “If somebody hits a bad note, you can’t fix it. There’s no auto-tuning — you have that note for posterity.”
Ultimately, the success of a live event is in the hands of the viewers, and the thrill for them, Zadan says, is the “hope to catch lightning in a bottle. To see something special that you wouldn’t necessarily see if it was pre-taped or edited.”
“The unexpected things that happen are the things people talk about the next day,” Bracco adds. “Any show we do when it’s live — it’s never perfect. You know that over the course of a three-hour awards show things are going to happen that you didn’t plan for. That’s what makes it exciting and I think that’s what viewers expect.”
While taking a television show live may be a risk, Lawrence says that challenge is part of the excitement, and is particularly intriguing for audiences. “It might be a disaster but there’s no possible way it’ll be boring.”