Live from New York - it's "30 Rock"!
This Thursday's 9 p.m. live episode of NBC's Emmy-winning sitcom is part of a growing trend toward happening-right-now TV. "Dancing With the Stars" is live on ABC twice a week - and it happens to be this young fall season's top-ranked show.
As those time-shifting devices grow in popularity, along with online show-streaming and full-season DVD sets, TV networks are desperately seeking ways to get viewers to watch shows in real time as episodes - and their ads - are originally broadcast.
"The more urgent the programming, the higher the rating," wrote The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd in a recent column that suggested ways to help NBC climb out of last place in the Niel- sens. Under the heading "Think live," Hibberd advised, "Figure out a way to create Must-See-Tonight TV, and reap the rewards."
"30 Rock" creator Tina Fey certainly knows how to do that. She was head writer and news-lampoon anchor for years on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" - the venerable late-night sketchfest that, upon its 1975 premiere, resurrected the concept of live television. That was nearly two decades after the development of videotape had moved the networks toward a "previously recorded" standard.
TV would get more polished. It also got more bland. That live-TV sense of walking high-wire without a net - anything could go wrong! - was gone. So were line flubs, shaky camera shots and other boo-boos. As the networks worked out those errors, they diminished energy and immediacy.
Live episodes reinject some of that adrenaline. "It's gonna be really thrilling," Fey says in NBC's Hulu.com video plugging Thursday's no-retakes show. "We're gonna do it in Studio 8H, where they do 'SNL.' . . . We're gonna do it live at 8:30 for the East Coast, and we're gonna do it again at 11:30 East Coast time for the West Coast. And we'll probably change some jokes from one to the other, just for the fun of it."
Fun, of course, if it goes right. Not so fun if things go wrong. Full-on disaster is rare, but always possible. In 1958, actor Gareth Jones died off-camera during a live play on British TV's "Armchair Theatre," forcing fellow actors to improvise around his absence. Late-night "SNL" cast members have blurted out forbidden words: the late Charles Rocket was fired in 1981 for a big-time epithet, while 2009 rookie Jenny Slate was admonished for her accidental slip in a biker skit.
Prime time is much less forgiving. The stakes are higher both financially, with skittish advertisers, and socially, with activist groups primed to pounce on swearing, skin or perceived slurs.
So the networks must weigh risks against benefits. With "30 Rock" still ratings-challenged despite all its awards and acclaim, Fey's show can use the juice a live episode can bring. "Will & Grace" saw a Nielsen boost when it went live for its eighth season premiere in 2005 - and guest star Alec Baldwin got an Emmy nomination for his part in the event.
Now Baldwin and Fey join forces on a "30 Rock" episode in which the perils of live broadcast have been written into the show-within-a-show. TV writer Liz Lemon (Fey) is turning 40 on broadcast night for "TGS," where star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) decides it's funnier to crack up on-air than to stay in character, stressing out co-star Jenna (Jane Krakowski). And Jack (Baldwin) wishes he hadn't promised to stop drinking during Avery's (Elizabeth Banks) pregnancy.
Live, laughing, loaded - sounds like Must-See-Tonight TV, doesn't it? Here are 10 Tales of Live TV:
(NBC, Sept. 25, 1997)
This is the first live scripted-show event remembered by many of today's viewers. TV's top-ranked series made front-page news when producers decided to go direct to air with the fourth-season premiere of their high-speed hospital drama. They staged the episode as a news documentary about a typical day in the ER, allowing a videotape look similar to news events. The episode went off without problems, adding about 10 million viewers to the series' already huge ratings. Cast and crew performed twice to cover both coasts. (The West Coast version is the one in the "ER" DVD set.)
2. Fail Safe
(CBS movie, April 9, 2000)
George Clooney was one "ER" cast member so energized by going live that he began planning another production. Clooney persuaded CBS to air his live remake of the 1964 movie suspenser "Fail Safe," in which American political and military commanders race to avert nuclear war. The event was popular enough that CBS announced more live movies, though only one aired - 2001's "On Golden Pond," with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.
(NBC, Nov. 6, 2005)
Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda went toe to toe in a one-on-one live campaign debate. While the live "ER" episode represented a show at its peak flexing its muscles, this hour felt more like a dying show desperate for attention. NBC had moved "The West Wing" from its longtime Wednesday berth to Sunday nights, losing about a third of its viewership. The live debate did bring the Nielsens up about 15 percent, but that season was still the series' last.
(Fox, Aug. 23, 1992-May 9, 1993)
Charles S. Dutton's sitcom about a Baltimore trash collector went live for its entire second season. Dutton and co-stars were theater vets, hoping to tap fresh energy and audience curiosity for their series, but the Nielsens continued to lag. "Roc" returned to taped episodes for its third and final season.
5. The Drew Carey Show
(ABC, Nov. 10, 1999; Nov. 8, 2000; Nov. 14, 2001)
Carey not only hosted ABC's improv game "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" but also led three live semi-improvised episodes of his eponymous sitcom. The sweeps-month stunts recruited fellow improv comics Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Greg Proops, Brad Sherwood and Wayne Brady.
6. Rosie Live
(NBC, Nov. 26, 2008)
This lame Thanksgiving Eve variety hour seemed to hammer the final nail into the coffin of that moribund comedy-music genre. Trapped in tacky-time with host Rosie O'Donnell were Conan O'Brien, Alec Baldwin, Kathy Griffin, Liza Minnelli and Clay Aiken.
7. Andy Kaufman on 'Fridays'
(ABC, Feb. 20, 1981)
Live from the Los Angeles basin, ABC tried its own late-night "SNL" sketch comedy, with a cast including Larry David and Michael Richards behind a weekly guest host. Going live was catnip to Kaufman, the Great Neck native who specialized in sabotaging audience expectations. Here he refused to read his lines, precipitating a brawl with Richards and other actors.
8. Live theater
This was a natural for event-starved networks to resurrect. In 1980, NBC staged the stage play "The Oldest Living Graduate" in Dallas starring Henry Fonda. In 1983, PBS' "American Playhouse" televised the Old Globe Theatre's San Diego production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" with Blair Brown and Rue McClanahan.
9. TV's early days
Most telecasts in the 1940s and '50s were produced live. (Videotape was not in use until 1957.) That's why "golden age" TV drama achievements like "Playhouse 90" are more legendary than familiar. While some vintage series like "I Love Lucy" still exist because they were produced on film, others are lost forever because they were only seen live.
10. Soap operas
Daytime drama was TV's last bastion of live scripted broadcasts. CBS' "As the World Turns" and "The Edge of Night" both produced live episodes through 1975, from New York, where stage actors were comfortable performing without retakes. ABC's Manhattan-produced "One Life to Live" saluted that tradition in a week of live episodes during 2002's May sweeps.