Live Thrives on Variety

Talk, entertainment and reality see results by following DVR-proof path of sports, news
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Cops, pop stars and comics are all going live this season as network executives grow increasingly confident that viewers may quit time-shifting long enough to tune in en masse for event programming where anything can happen.

The Big Four networks are all looking to increase their live footprints, building on ratings triumphs scored by live episodes of late-night talk shows after this year’s presidential debates, as well as the success of musicals Grease Live! and The Wiz Live!

On the reality front, A&E just premiered Live PD, a series that rides along with police officers in six cities during two-hour episodes.

They are, of course, taking a page from the likes of sports and news, genres that have long learned the lessons, and seen the advantages, of live TV. It’s only been recently that other genres have gotten that message and found a way to cash in on it.

Alive With the Sound of Musicals

Musicals continue to resonate with audiences, with NBC queuing up Hairspray Live! for December. For producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the stage and screen duo largely responsible for reviving the conversation around live entertainment television, this will be their fourth live musical for the network in as many years—and potentially the biggest.

“What Hairspray has going for it is a wide range of demos and stars of every age and magnitude: Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Martin Short. And they all have constituencies that love them,” Meron says. “There’s a possibility of reaching an even bigger audience then we’ve had previously.” As a source of comparison, The Sound of Music Live! drew 18.6 million viewers, Peter Pan Live! had 9.1 million and The Wiz Live! logged 11.5 million.

The pair is also preparing the drama A Few Good Men Live, a promised reward from Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, if the musicals did well. That will give NBC two live entertainment productions per year: musicals in February with dramas in between, Meron says.

Fox, the network behind Grease Live!, which drew 12.2 million viewers in January, expects to announce its next project before year’s end, according to entertainment president David Madden. Is the network spooked by its own success? “Grease set a high bar. We are going to be careful of what follows it,” he says.

Ironically, ABC, whose parent Walt Disney dominates Broadway, has yet to dive into live TV musicals. Robert Mills, head of alternative programming, says the network is sifting through Disney properties for the right project. “We are definitely going to be jumping into that space,” he says, “but we want to make sure that it does feel special.”

Live From Late-Night

Mills says ABC is developing a project with Jimmy Kimmel, unrelated to late-night talker Jimmy Kimmel Live! “It’s top secret,” he says, noting that Kimmel “saw the success of Grease and said ‘These things are big and I have an idea for one.’”

A live broadcast of Jimmy Kimmel Live! after the Oct. 17 presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump pulled in the show’s best ratings in a year.

This fall’s three presidential debates reaffirmed the lure of live television, garnering, respectively, 84 million, 66.5 million and 71.8 million viewers.

After buoyant ratings from live post-convention shows in August, CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert decided to go live after two of the three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate. Executive producer and showrunner Chris Licht says Colbert will go live on Election Day and maybe a few more nights during what’s likely to be “a nutty week.”

With live “there’s much more of a shared experience between the audience and the host,” Licht says, despite the need for “working at warp speed.” When the “No, you’re the puppet” exchange between Trump and Clinton started in their third debate, Licht says he yelled, “‘Oh my god, get me two puppets.’ And the props department marked up two puppets and the first time we saw them was right before they went on.”

Arresting Television

In A&E’s Live PD, which launched Oct. 28, Dan Abrams and two former Dallas police detectives serve as studio hosts, explaining the action on the fly as six crews track officers live.

Participating police departments include Bridgeport, Conn.; Tulsa, Okla.; Walton County, Fla.; Richland County, S.C.; Utah Highway Patrol; and Arizona Department of Public Safety.

“Our producer and crew will be making decisions to go to a particular city when something interesting is happening. It’s going to be a high-wire act. There’s no guarantee that every city is going to be in every episode,” says Rob Sharenow, executive VP and general manager of A&E.

The recent spate of police shootings that sparked public debate convinced him to do the show, Sharenow says. The live factor was secondary. “The idea that something is DVRproof and you must tune in now is great in today’s world,” he says. “But what really drove it is that there is a huge cultural conversation going on right now and we are on the front line.”

He says technological advances have slashed the cost of making Live PD by half of what it would have been even 12 months ago.

“We are looking into other areas that could possibly fit this model, but editorial really drives everything,” Sharenow says. “We are not going to just gratuitously do something live.”

The trend of stunt and scare shows that hit screens last October—live brain surgery (NatGeo), live burials (A&E) and live exorcism (Destination America)—seems to have petered out.

“Live just for the sake of live is not good,” says Disney’s Mills. “If you do too many of them it creates diminishing returns.” For live musicals, “it depends on how beloved the property is and how they are cast.” For reality fare, “sometimes the worst thing that can happen is when you [hear] ‘brain surgery live’ or ‘police live’ or whatever and your mind can go to a place where the show doesn’t take you.”

“It’s about urgency,” says Fox’s Madden. “Whether it’s debates or sports. If you want those experiences, you have to watch.”

And the more urgency the better: According to Deloitte’s latest Digital Democracy Survey, in 2015, more than 80% of millennials age 19-32 (and 58% of all video consumers) watched digital video content via a streaming service.

Kevin Westacott, head of the consulting firm’s U.S. media and entertainment practice, says live content “certainly won’t radically transform television,” even given the magnitude of the shift. “But I do see it as an interesting way to augment something and to spur appointment programming.”

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