Liven Up TV!

Live broadcasting remains one of the most thrilling, exhilarating and unpredictable ways of watching television but is live TV being exploited to its full potential?

I’ve always thought that live broadcasting was one of the major reasons that we as viewers should stick with on-air television in light of a multitude of increasingly attractive alternatives. From the Kennedy vs. Nixon debate all the way up to Clint Eastwood’s GOP speech, live television has made and broken American reputations in real time as we look on. It has given us instant access to events both worldly and interplanetary (9/11, the Moon landings) as one nation and human race. We live for being in front of the TV when news breaks, or when something surprising happens, or simply when it screws up. Sure, we can see it later - and if it’s big news, believe me we will - but there’s no substitute for getting it while it happens before it loses immediacy, is drained of all its novelty and gets messed with in the editing room.

We know what live television is capable of but it sometimes feels like TV doesn’t. Last Monday morning, news anchors on the morning show of local Los Angeles TV station KTLA reacted to a mid-size earthquake by panicking, shouting ‘Earthquake!’ and diving under the desk until it was over. Now, I’m not saying I would have done any different in the moment, even if I had been trained to carry on talking to viewers when a crisis hits. But when an earthquake is met by dead air and the ramblings of presenters who are so caught up in the event that cannot offer any meaningful information about it, then what is the point of continuing to broadcast live? Even on stations where the anchors reacted more calmly, like Fox 5 and CBS 2, their descriptions of the earthquake as ‘big’, ‘large’ and ‘strong’ never got further than a child’s vocabulary.


I had that same wasteful feeling this Wednesday while watching CNN’s coverage of the search for missing Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 in the Indian Ocean. All that had emerged in the way of data at that point was a flight simulator recording, discovered in the pilot’s home. Cue hours and hours of meaningless speculation on what the simulator’s deletions said about the involvement of the pilot in the hi-jacking. Expert panellists and guests, including former Boeing engineer Bill Nye the Science Guy (who is used to breaking things down for people with the minds of children) repeatedly and emphatically stated that nothing of substance could be learnt from the finding and that any conjectures about the pilot could be argued any which way. Anchor Erin Burnett didn’t seem fazed by their being no ‘evidence’ and only ‘questions’. Yet still the ‘Breaking News’ logo pounded the screen like a flimsy hammer.

Even when live TV sets its sights lower on the pursuit of mindless entertainment, the results are disappointing. Last Monday, ABC aired the season premiere of the live primetime dance competition Dancing with the Stars. It had gone to the trouble of replacing departing co-host Brook Burke-Charvet with a soccer sportscaster, Erin Andrews, who one might think was familiar with presenting on live TV in the presence of spectators. You wouldn’t know it with all her miscues, overrunning interviews and startled reactions to the studio audience’s responses. There’s a certain thrill that comes from live shows running up against the clock but it’s a very fine line that easy spills over into shoddy amateurism, and that’s exactly what it looked like on Monday night. The unbridled excitement of a studio audience is one of the rousing qualities of live TV but here it just looked like basic crowd control failures.

‘Live’ has also become shorthand in television for ‘padding’. Major primetime network reality shows like ABC’s The Bachelor/ette and NBC’s The Biggest Loser eek out season finales into their second and third hours with live specials. This wouldn’t be so bad if these finales were actually based around the events in the studio but more often they simply introduce and break up recorded footage, some of which has been seen multiple times before. The Bachelor/ette: After the Final Rose is a clip-show cum post-mortem of the finale shown immediately afterwards. So nothing new, and this year the one ‘big surprise’ they had was sabotaged by in-fighting between the show and its star, Juan-Pablo Galavis. The Biggest Loser pertains to be a live finale but apart from the minutes’ worth of final weigh-ins, the majority of it is a tedious, laborious nostalgia-fest for stuff we saw happen a few weeks ago.

It’s one of the qualities of TV that instantly distinguishes it from most other forms of entertainment we have, and yet live broadcasting is languishing.

reverenddejesus aka Tom Steward is a TV blogger, film and culture critic and television studies professor. You can read his blog posts at Watching TV with Americans | Whether they're on the screen or on the couch and follow his TV tweets @tvinaword.