Cops and Classic Sitcoms Fuel TV's Latest Live Programming Boom

Illustration by Greg Kletsel

As musical ratings wane, A&E's patrol car breakout 'Live PD' has inspired a slew of knockoffs, while ABC mines golden age comedies: "A lot of producers now slap 'live' onto pitches for us."

If live TV is now the lifeblood of linear television, networks appear eager for a transfusion — tackling live programming in new arenas, such as reality and comedy, in an effort to jump-start the genre. Familiar opportunities for live are either slim or less of a guarantee for eyeballs, with few available sports broadcast rights, waning audiences for awards shows (down a collective 15 million viewers in 2018) and even live musicals starting to miss the mark. (Fox's $10 million-plus January staging of Rent garnered only 3.4 million live viewers; NBC axed plans for a similarly "edgy" production of Hair shortly thereafter.)

There's an eagerness to invite new kinds of projects under the live umbrella across the TV landscape, thanks in large part to one cable show. A&E juggernaut Live PD, the twist on Cops that bounces between near-instant footage of patrols in various American precincts, has become one of TV's big success stories of the past five years. Even after airing more than 600 hours of live programming since its 2016 bow, the June 21 episode hit a series high of 2.4 million live viewers, lifting A&E to its first monthly victory among adults 25-to-54 since 2013. "There was a learning curve," says Dan Cesareo, the Live PD executive producer and founder of Big Fish Entertainment. "Those early shows were clunky and the initial ratings, considering the price point, were not what A&E wanted them to be. But it has a sense of urgency that edited, nonlive unscripted doesn't have."

Pricey to start, larger orders like the massive September commitment for 450 more hours increasingly have helped amortize initial costs. Sources now paint the Live PD budget in the vicinity of $350,000 an hour, making it a roughly $2.1 million weekly investment. But that's for six hours — a block that guarantees A&E cable wins on Friday and Saturday nights.

A&E brass is pleased with the results so far. The network responded with spinoff Live Rescue, with emergency responders, and added another 10 episodes onto the initial order. "A lot of producers now slap 'live' onto pitches for us," says A&E head of programming and executive vp Elaine Frontain Bryant. "You're not going to see us programming live seven nights a week, so we really have to pressure-test these things to see if they're better live or in our viewers' DVR queues."

Live PD's enviable narrative has prompted knockoffs. Fox launched the Dick Wolf-produced First Responders Live on June 12, but its performance has been middling — dropping to 1.8 million viewers by its third week and drawing criticism for lacking live footage.

Broadcast's most recent example for live success came from a different genre. Jimmy Kimmel brainchild Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a staging of classic sitcoms featuring Jamie Foxx, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Hudson, has been watched by more than 22 million viewers since its May 22 debut. It's being eyed as a recurring event, though sitcom rights and lining up talent will keep it from occurring too often. "People have to do it for the love of the game," says executive producer Brent Miller. "There's no way we could afford the quotes of the people we were casting in these roles."

ABC is said to be considering announcing plans for a follow-up as soon as its Aug. 5 meeting with the Television Critics Association, but network alternative, specials and late-night chief Rob Mills is quick to note that everyone in linear TV would be wise not to over-index on specials. "You need to be doing one or two a quarter, but I want them to be different," says Mills, who brought back high-wire family The Wallendas for a June 23 stunt that peaked with 7.2 million viewers. "This is not just a response to the rise of streaming. It's been important since the beginning of TV to bring people in, get circulation and promote your other shows."

This story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.