With all the talk of Netflix binge-watching, DVR penetration and on-the-go time-shifting, the TV viewers that take their football live and their awards shows as they come can be excused for feeling a bit archaic, if not downright lonely. They needn’t. Of the top 10 rated programs for the week ending Sept. 7, according to Nielsen, a full seven were live shows, watched as they happened. Football is the behemoth engine of live—strikingly, since 2011, the combined averages of Sunday and Monday primetime games (generally the top draws of the season) have finished 20% to 30% higher than the average for all other primetime programming.
Beyond sports, though, live TV and buzz-generating special events, from awards shows, singing competitions and daredevil stunts to last December’s noone- saw-it-coming crescendo of NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! might well be the counter-programming story of the decade. They are a firm challenge to our well-entrenched habit of watching what we want, when we want, and on screens that fit into our jean pockets. And while some contestants in America’s Got Talent wouldn’t have been out of place on an ancient Sunday night with Ed Sullivan, the social media components of live programming are resolutely 21st century and, in many cases, more finely in tune with as-it’s-happening TV than scripted pre-recorded fare.
The multiscreen experience—simultaneously watching a TV program and its related online component— also lends itself to live programs. “When you’re watching a scripted piece of art for television,” says Scott Lewers, Discovery Channel senior VP, programming, “you want to watch that show. There’s no true organic play-by-play [online component] for someone to experience.”
In search of more insights about the workings of the live business in advance of The Business of Live TV Summit in New York City on Sept. 30, B&C spoke with three TV executives about upcoming live events—their appeal, durability and risks.
VP of development and production
BIG GIG:Skyscraper Live With Nik Wallenda
THE PLAN: Some 13 million Discovery Channel viewers watched high-wire walker Nik Wallenda cross the Grand Canyon in June, 2013—and weighed in at a pace of about 40,000 tweets per minute. Long before the special won an Emmy for multiplatform storytelling, Discovery programmers were already plotting their next steps minutes after Wallenda carefully finished his. The plan was hatched: Wallenda would take his act to the city, Chicago to be exact, where on Nov. 2, the seventh-generation high-wire artist will walk the equivalent of two city blocks, one Chicago skyscraper to another, 50 blocks above the ground.
EARLY STEPS: “We dipped our toe in the water with Felix Baumgartner’s Space Jump Live [the 2012 special in which Baumgartner set the world record for skydiving, with a jump from 24 miles above the Earth]. It was a Sunday afternoon and we were doing double primetime numbers. We saw the phenomenon where people were talking about it, Facebook friends started chattering and everyone saw that it was on the Discovery Channel and wanted to watch it on their beautiful HD big screens instead of their computer screens.
“For the Grand Canyon event, we averaged over 1.3 million tweets. The Grand Canyon had its own challenges—it’s in the middle of nowhere, with no infrastructure. Everyone and everything had to be flown, choppered in, and we literally had to build a city in the middle of the Grand Canyon, essentially in the middle of a desert. It took, logistically, nine or ten months just to figure out how everything was going to work.”
WINDY CITY ISSUES: “Being in the center of a huge metropolitan area has its own challenges. How do you control the crowd? Set up cameras on rooftops? The city of Chicago will come up with a security plan. There will be a segregated area that will be the footprint for the event. I’m sure inevitably there will need to be some street closures, but we’re taking our lead from the city of Chicago on that.”
TOWERING RISKS: “We spend a lot of time thinking through every possible scenario and are prepared for every contingency. It’s a huge part of what we do, and we work with the people who are absolutely the masters of their craft. Nik Wallenda is a seventh-generation high-wire-act performer. This is somebody as comfortable on a high wire as you and I are on the sidewalk, and that’s an important factor. We have to trust the people we work with and know they are absolutely the best at what they do. We’re not going to work with 20-year-old yahoos with a death wish who come up with some spectacular idea that isn’t in the DNA of what the Discovery brand is all about.
“We plan for months and months and months. We are prepared and rehearsed for every potential scenario, from weather issues and technical problems to the worst-case scenarios. I can tell you that the audience will never see or experience anything that is inappropriate, not just out of respect for our viewers but out of respect for the Wallendas and their wishes and their desires. I can tell you one thing for sure: We do have a 10-second delay on the broadcast, and we rehearse for whatever could happen in those 10 seconds.”
President, program planning, strategy and research
BIG GIG: Peter Pan Live!
In a follow-up to last December’s left-field ratings smash The Sound of Music Live! (18.62 million viewers), NBC will air Peter Pan Live! on Dec. 4. Executive produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the new version of the 1954 musical will star Allison Williams (Girls) in the title role made famous by Mary Martin, and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.
“We were very pleasantly surprised at how well it did,” says Bader. “We thought it would do well, but it did even better than we thought it would. I think it was a combination of a lot of things. The Sound of Music is very well known—it’s a show schools across the country still do, and people know the movie. Bringing in Carrie Underwood then broadened it to an audience that might not normally watch a show on NBC or watch a Broadway musical...And it was holiday time and a big event—there just aren’t that many of those anymore. The fact that it was live made it stand out a little bit.”
MUSICAL MARKETING: “With Sound of Music, we had lots of things going in our favor. In the week leading up to it—and this was no accident—we had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is a huge live event where we could feature the fact that we were airing Sound of Music the next week. We did a Making of The Sound of Music program to make sure people knew it was happening. And we have a very broad portfolio of live events—Sunday Night Football, The Voice, Saturday Night Live—all leading up to this other big live event. And it’s compatible programming. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a big family event, and The Voice is a big, broad-appeal show, to promote another big, broad-appeal show.”
GOOD TIMING: “All the networks have been talking about doing live musicals, or live movies—and they have done them—over the years. There was that live episode of ER. But I think now the bigger benefit of a live event is that, with so many options for people to choose to watch something now or DVR it for later, when it’s a live show people want to watch it when everyone else is watching it. It was interesting, reading some of the social media comments while Sound of Music was on, and even after the fact, that we forget sometimes that a lot of people don’t have access to live theater. This was a way for people to actually see what was a live Broadway show, essentially.
“And for us, in December, we actually have a perfect set-up. It’s great being able to use the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center, all leading up to our family musical. It’s a perfect line-up of marketing opportunities.”
President, AXS TV
BIG GIG:John Mellencamp LIVE
AXS TV, the digital cable and satellite network founded by Mark Cuban, Ryan Seacrest and AEG, among others, airs some prerecorded content. It is largely known, though, for live programming, from comedy specials and boxing matches to the head-banging pleasures of Coachella, the country crooning of the Stagecoach Festival and, most recently, John Mellencamp’s Sept. 27 live performance from his recording studio in Bloomington, Ind.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION: “Our audience likes live events, they like attending live events, they like buying tickets to live events and they like seeing them on TV. If there’s a multiple-day music festival and they can’t attend the event in person, they will watch it on TV. With the Stagecoach Music Festival, which is a three-day event over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a lot of social buzz builds over the three days, and so [our] audience builds.
“Florida Georgia Line headlined the show [last April], and they did interviews on-air and got on Facebook and Twitter with their fans. There was a lot of social engagement all around their performance. We make an effort as a network to grow that buzz by getting the artists to engage, having the artists tweet and interact on Facebook and other social media. At the same time, we put our viewers’ interactions in the lower third [of the TV screen]. So the multiday event generates publicity and interest as the days go on.”