Emmys: Why Live Programming Is Dominating This Year

TV's oldest trick cuts through both the Peak TV scrum and viewers' deepening distraction as it garners notice in a variety of genres and onscreen snafus could turn to trophy gold.
ABC via Getty Images; Scott Kowalchyk/SHOWTIME;Ronald Martinez/Getty Images; Will Heath/NBC; Justin Lubin/NBC

All that's old is new again, at least in TV, which increasingly is betting on the oldest trick in its book: live programming, which scored notable Emmy nominations across genres and categories.

In the outstanding special class program category, this year's nominees are Hairspray Live!, the latest in a string of NBC live musicals; ABC's Jimmy Kimmel-hosted 89th Academy Awards; Fox's Super Bowl LI Halftime Show Starring Lady Gaga; and CBS' James Corden-hosted Tony Awards, aka the "Hamiltonys," from more than a year ago. One outstanding variety special nominee is Showtime's Stephen Colbert election night offering, for which CBS' late-night host went to its cable sister network so he could speak freely while reacting to election returns.

In best variety sketch series is NBC's Saturday Night Live, which this season, for the first time in the show's 42-year history, actually aired live across the country (as opposed to just in the Eastern and Central time zones) for its final four episodes ("So everyone is in on the joke at the same time," said NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt). In best variety talk series is HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, which always has aired live and might have nearly lost its status as a perennial nominee this year after Bill Maher dropped the N-word during an episode. In reality competition program is NBC's The Voice, which aired its "playoffs" live. And the list goes on.

In the early days of the medium, just 70 or so years ago, everything aired live — there was no alternative — resulting in what is remembered as TV's "Golden Age." Talk to stars who worked on TV then, such as William Shatner or Eva Marie Saint, and they will recount horror stories about actors goofing up their lines, bumping into the furniture or playing to the wrong camera. But talk to viewers who watched in that era, and they will tell you that something magical was lost when it ended.

Over the decades since, some have tried to preserve elements of the old ways by having a studio audience or adding the word "live" to a title, but usually it's an illusion. (ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!, like the rest of its late-night competitors on broadcast, actually tapes hours before it airs.) For many years, the only things, apart from SNL, that truly aired live and generated big audiences were sporting events (the Super Bowl and Olympics) and awards shows (the Oscars and Grammys).

Meanwhile, TV viewers increasingly became fragmented thanks to an explosion of channels, the internet, DVRs and, frankly, societal ADD. But mankind's desire for communal experiences, which dates back as far as man, never went away; people just found them elsewhere, like on Facebook and Twitter (there's a reason they're called "social networks").

It only has been in the past five or so years — probably dating back to the first of the live TV musicals, 2013's The Sound of Music Live! — that people began to realize that live programming is a perfect fit for the social media age. Why? Because TV viewers love nothing more than knowing while watching something that what they're seeing is real, the outcome is uncertain and things can go very wrong — and they can then dissect those things immediately with others. (A recent study found that more than three-quarters of TV viewers now watch with a second screen — usually a smartphone — in their hand.)

For broadcasters, having mistakes or surprises occur on live TV actually is desirable, since something "going viral" can quickly drive new eyeballs to an ongoing program. And while it's true that an increasing number of people are becoming cord-cutters (or never had a cord at all), it's also true that the places to which many of them have flocked recognize the hunger for live programming and are scrambling to provide it. Hulu Live, YouTube TV and Sling TV are among the services that already do. Amazon will live-stream Thursday night NFL games this season. And Twitter, which dabbled in NFL streaming last year, will stream NHL games this year.

In short, there's a reason people still pay to see live theater, concerts and sporting events that they could watch at home. Watching something unfold live, there's an energy that flows from performer to audience and back. Through a TV screen, it flows differently, but the electricity is there nonetheless.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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