Live Day-to-Day

It’s been a long time since American television was purely live but it’s still an everyday part of broadcasting. Amidst the cycle of breakfast shows, daytime chat shows, primetime entertainment and 24-hour rolling news and shopping, there doesn’t seem to be an hour of the day that there isn’t some kind of live TV on the air. We know from experience that live broadcasting can be one of the most powerful, significant and thrilling forms of TV. Live television has been agent and witness to cataclysmic political changes. It made and then ruined Nixon, and then made and ruined him again. We saw the Republicans’ chances of electoral success in 2012 vanish in real time at the GOP conference as Clint Eastwood decided to go off-script and do X-rated versions of his Bob Newhart and Jimmy Stewart impressions. There are other world and universe-changing events witnessed on live TV I should mention – like 9/11 and the Moon landings – but…dude was talking to a chair! There’s no greater potential for surprise, shock and error in television than in a live broadcast, and that unpredictability carries a nervous energy that is utterly exhilarating. And we get it uncensored and first-hand.

I’m reminding myself of what live TV is capable of because, if the past week is anything to go by, American TV has forgotten. Last Monday morning, news anchors on the local Los Angeles TV station KTLA breakfast show reacted to a mid-size earthquake that happened live-on-air by panicking, shouting ‘Earthquake!’ and diving under a desk until it had subsided. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I would have done anything different in this situation, even if I had been trained to keep going. But is there any point continuing to broadcast live if all we’re going to get is dead air, an empty studio and the terrified ramblings of presenters so shaken up by the event they can offer no meaningful information about it? Anchors on the other affected TV stations may have stayed calmer, but they didn’t do much better reporting the earthquake. Deprived of information, hindsight and proportion, presenters on Fox 5 and CBS 2 were left with the remnants of a child’s vocabulary. It was ‘big’. It was ‘large’. Some over-achiever even called it ‘strong’. They might have learned something about the conditions that Fox News anchors work under every day, but we learnt nothing.

If you wanted to watch the television equivalent of muscle-wastage, then you needn’t have looked further than what CNN put on in relation to the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 last week. Either the ‘Breaking News’ button was being used as a coaster for an unwanted drink for the past week, or the network genuinely thought the FBI acquisition of a flight simulator recording from the pilot’s home was some kind of crucial development in the story. Cue hours and hours of wild speculation about the significance of the simulator’s data, even after repeated protestation from the featured experts that conjectures about the pilot’s role in the hi-jacking could be argued any which way. It took former Boeing engineer Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is used to breaking things down for people with the minds of children, to tell us that the only thing we all could do was to guess. At one point, a pilot sat in a flight simulator and took viewers step-by-step through a scenario that he had entirely invented in his head. Not even the ‘Screen of Souls’ had an answer to free them from their suspended animations in a video monitor bank.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

Maybe the problem is that news reporting has too big a burden of information for continuous live coverage to carry. If so, then putting on a 2-hour entertainment programme that’s been on TV for years live should be a doddle, right? Well, not if it’s Dancing with the Stars. ABC’s primetime dance competition returned for a new season last Monday night with a re-booted format. But it was the basics of live television that the show tripped up on. The studio audience couldn’t be subdued for long enough to hear the judges’ notes on the dances. New co-host Erin Andrews comes from live stadium sportscasting and you would expect her to be adept handling live TV in the presence of spectators, but she kept overrunning, miscuing and recoiling from the audience’s spontaneous reactions. When live TV runs up against the clock and threatens to fall apart, we get a certain thrill as viewers. But it’s a fine line that if overstepped results in sheer incomprehensibility. It’s one of the qualities that makes TV so much more special than other forms of entertainment; yet live broadcasting in America is languishing. Abused, misused, and squandered, live TV barely deserves the name anymore.

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