“We need to be in the event business,” claimed NBC executive Robert Greenblatt at the TCA press tour this week. “Live is really important these days in trying to fight the DVR and build the biggest audience you can.”
NBC’s decision to shift toward more live programming is a logical step for a linear television service needing to compete with nonlinear services for audience attention.
Ironies abound. Back in the 1930s, the nascent national networks NBC and CBS wrote affiliate contracts with local stations requiring them to carry networks’ feeds live and requiring programs to be performed live over the air. By the 1940s, many radio performers wearied of the risks and pressures of live performances, the inability to edit or do over, and once audiotape was developed, began pressuring networks to allow prerecorded programs. The networks, however, resisted this. Cloaking their policy in the garb of public interest, the networks insisted that audiences demanded live programming, that live was superior to prerecorded, and that the magic of simultaneous experience was a crucial element of radio’s appeal.
What the networks neglected to mention, however, was that their live-only policy existed primarily to enforce their affiliate contracts. The networks worried that if programs could be distributed in prerecorded formats, stations would leave network affiliations and program their own airtime; networks would then be unable to serve national advertisers’ needs to reach national audiences simultaneously.
Before videotape was invented in 1956, television was mostly live (or filmed, which was expensive and so rarer). NBC promoted live programs called “Spectaculars” designed to attract viewers precisely for their liveness. Edward R. Murrow hosted a program displaying live television shots from multiple cities to demonstrate the power of television.
Today, broadcast networks are re-embracing their ability to share live events nationally and acknowledging that as their primary distinction from nonlinear services. Just as radio shifted from a national scripted entertainment service to a local music and news service, broadcast television programming may, over the next decade or so, shift more and more prerecorded scripted entertainment programming to other services and focus more and more on live events like sports, contests, and news.