Is It Live Or Is It...

TV networks trying to differentiate themselves by (basically) going back to the early days of television.

How's this for "something completely different"?

Having seen its audiences for scripted entertainment series siphoned off by cable, and having nothing to replace it with but cheap reality (and sometimes game) shows, the broadcast TV networks, whether they realize it or not, are going "back to the beginning".

They are taking old special "event" plays and musicals, and presenting them live-at least on the East Coast.

NBC got a big audience in December showing The Sound of Music-Live!, with Carrie Underwood (ironically, an American Idol alumnus) in the starring role.  Now, it plans to bring back Peter Pan next December.  I digress: people of my age remember when NBC staged Peter Pan twice in the 1950's (once in black and white, later in color; the color version was repeated several times, as late as 1989), with Mary Martin-mother of the late Larry Hagman-as its star.

Live events-particularly sporting events and awards shows-still do well in the TV ratings.  The upcoming Super Bowl is usually the highest-rated single program of every TV season, as it figures to be this year.  As NBC knows well, events in the Olympics (if you haven't heard, the winter games are just a couple of weeks away) shown live nearly always get better ratings than when they're broadcast on a delay basis of several hours.

But the amusing thing about this sudden "live" trend is that's how television began, before most people even had TV sets.

And I mean EVERYTHING was live-even scripted dramatic and comedy series. My favorite example of this is a family comedy named I Remember Mama, one of the earliest, most successful situation comedies on the small screen.  Why don't we see any of it today? Well, there are few episodes of the series existing at all, and probably not in their entirety.  The show-even the commercials-was done entirely live, and there were not likely to have been many, if any, attempts to record or preserve it.  Filmed TV shows really didn't start until the 1950's, probably at about the time I Love Lucy began.

Live was really evident with the variety shows, which were all over TV in the 1950's and '60's. By the 1960's, most of those were recorded, although The Ed Sullivan Show   was always live, except for reruns. (See my previous blog about the Beatles.) Then there were the weekly dramatic anthology series such as Kraft Theatre or Playhouse 90, which created the effect of staging a Broadway-style musical for all of the nation to see, right in their living rooms. The beleagured quiz shows of the late '50's were even done live, which added to the suspense of seeing contestants sweat out incredibly difficult and complicated questions. (Of course, we all thought they actually knew this stuff, and not getting answers "fed" to them by producers prior to the show.)

There are even more recent examples. Remember the episode of "ER" in the late 1990's that was done live? The actors even re-staged it three hours later, for the West Coast, after most of the country had seen it. And "Sound of Music" isn't the first production staged live. And need I mention Saturday Night Live?

And what's the attraction of airing something live? Probably only that it's live, and flubs can't be edited out. That, and, like the Super Bowl, its something that (in theory) the entire nation can see at once. Although it can be recorded and played back later (and I notice a DVD of the "Sound of Music" show was out within days of its broadcast), certain live broadcasts are best watched and enjoyed at the same time.

Much like TV used to be.

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