JESSELL AT LARGE

‘Live’ Brings Out The Best In Broadcast TV

Whether it's storm coverage, major sporting events like the Super Bowl or March Madness, or high-profile entertainment like The Sound of Music, television is at its finest — and most audience-grabbing — when it's live. In fact, broadcasting's future may be tied to live TV. Let's hope for more of it.

Looking back on our stories this week, I see that the common denominator for many was live TV — real, honest-to-goodness live TV as in “Live! From New York! It’s Saturday Night!”

The week started with Fox’s live broadcast of the Super Bowl, which pulled in more viewers — 112 million — than any other TV show in U.S. history, despite the fact that the first play of the second half ended all the football drama.

Not much more to say about this phenomenon, which seems to have become thoroughly ingrained into American popular culture — at least a big portion of it. When I see that 112 million, I also think that two thirds of the population ignored all the fuss. It reminds me of what a wonderfully diverse country this is.

Three days later came news that CBS was loading up on more live football of the NFL kind. It struck a deal that will give it eight Thursday night games in the first half of next season and the job of producing eight more (two on a Saturday) in the latter half for the NFL Network.

CBS is paying the NFL at least $250 million for the rights, according to the New York Times. Not so bad as NFL rights go these days, but the CBS games are going to be simulcast by the NFL Network and the deal is only for one year with a league option for a second.

Those terms suggest that CBS is paying to be a branding or marketing tool for the NFL Network, which is still trying to establish itself in the cable backwaters and command big programming fees for cable operators.

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That notion was reinforced by NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp when he explained to USA Today why the NFL choose CBS to be its broadcast partner: “CBS made a compelling case on the strength of their viewership and the strength of their ratings. Plus, the amount of promotion they were willing to give Thursday Night Football, as well as promoting the NFL Network, really distinguished themselves.”

Sounds to me like the NFL should be paying CBS.

In any event, let’s hope that CBS can extend the deal with the NFL to the mutual benefit of both networks. Live pro football is the hottest TV commodity out there.

Yesterday, NBC began its two-week, multiple-platform, multi-network coverage of the Sochi Olympics with the promise to carry live everything on skates, skis and rails — more than 1,000 hours — on NBCOlympics.com. There, all those hours can be accessed by desktop, smartphone or tablet.

I presume that NBC would have liked to air some events live, but the time difference between New York and Sochi is just too great — nine hours. Perhaps, we’ll see some live action on the broadcast network in 2016 during the summer games in Rio de Janeiro, which is just three hours in front of New York.

NBC in making one notable exception to its promise of blanket live coverage online. The opening ceremonies will be taped, delayed and seen only on NBC in primetime tonight.

Over the past couple of weeks, TV stations have been pumping out more live local news than usual as they try to keep up with the snow storms that have battered the eastern half of the country.

On Wednesday morning, the stations here in New York preempted the network morning shows so that they could report live on the latest storm to hit the area.

And when I say live, I don’t just mean from the studio. I mean from the street, too. With their fleets of microwave and satellite trucks and ever-more capable bonded cellular links, the stations seemed to be everywhere in the sprawling metropolis.

The cellular technology is not just a substitute for microwave and satellite trucks. It changes the nature of the news. With the mobile, go-anywhere capability, reporters in cars rolled up and down the streets of New York City, Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey asking residents how they were coping and bringing a new level of intimacy to the coverage.

The Daily Show last week tweaked WSB Atlanta for its 25-reporter “news box pileup” that the Cox station created during its coverage of a snow storm that caught the city by surprise on Jan. 28. But that graphic, more than anything I’ve seen on one screen, showed the extraordinary resources stations like WSB have to be live and ubiquitous and their willingness to expend them when the story demands.

I think CBS missed a big opportunity this Sunday. In a two-and-a-half hour special starting at 8 p.m., CBS will celebrate the advent of The Beatles on U.S. soil 50 years to the day they first appeared on CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show. It looks like a great show and I’ll be watching, but it could have been truly landmark TV had CBS bought all that talent together for a live event.

No matter. More big-time live broadcast TV is on the way. On March 2, ABC will broadcast the Academy Award with Ellen DeGeneres hosting. Fourteen advertisers are paying around $1.6 million per spot to be a part of all the Hollywood glamour, we learned this week. That broadcast attracts around 40 million viewers.

And then on March 18, March Madness gets underway on CBS and the Turner cable networks. The NCAA basketball tournament culminates with the championship game on April 7 on CBS and should draw 23-24 million fans. However, the madness this spring won’t be quite so mad for CBS affiliates. For the first time, the semi-final games will be on TBS.

As I’ve said here before, broadcasting’s future may be tied to live TV, be it news, sports or entertainment. I was happy to hear that NBC is going to follow up on the success of The Sound of the Music last December with a live production of Peter Pan next December. With his soaring entrance and personal pitch for the lead on Letterman last week, Bill Murray has already started building the buzz.

Let’s hope we see more live in broadcasting — in every daypart. Right now, other than news, the only live in daytime is the extended Today Show and Live with Kelly and Michael. [Editor’s note: After the original posting of this column, an alert reader pointed out that ABC’s The View, CBS’s The Talk and Debmar-Mercury’s The Wendy Williams Show also air live.]

The ABC-owned stations are looking for new show to replace Katie Couric who is folding her syndicated show at the end of this season. Rather than building a show around a celebrity who only wants to tape two or three days a week, ABC should find a couple of hard-working, likeable personalities like, say, Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, who are willing to show up every afternoon to host a live, topical show that mixes it up with the people of New York just as Today and Good Morning America do.

Now, that’s television — broadcast television.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (4)

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Ellen Samrock says:

February 7, 2014 at 6:27 pm

What’s old is new again. Yes, live could be broadcast television’s newest edge (was it Grey’s Anatomy that did a live episode a few years ago? More of that kind of thing would be wonderful and I think the actors would love it). And it’s great to see CBS show a strong commitment to sports. It was dismaying to watch the networks getting bested over and over by ESPN.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 8, 2014 at 1:05 am

    I believe it was ER that did the live episode. 30 Rock also did 2 live shows – with small differences on the live East and live West Coast Feeds.

Dale Godfrey says:

February 8, 2014 at 11:48 am

Harry, I agree with you fully. But two things you touched on warrant a comment. First, I’m sitting here watching NBC Sports Network where I’m watching the Olympics – live. Why wouldn’t NBC provide its AFFILIATES with the opportunity to air them in daytime? FWIW I remember the days when ABC did indeed provide coverage to its affiliates pretty well full-time, not just packaged for replay in prime time. For cable cutters and satellite slicers who rely solely on OTA broadcasts, they don’t get the live events available on NBC Sports Channel. Second, why don’t the four affiliates in NY City offer their normal network service over a sub channel? On one snowstorm last year I called CBS and asked if they had a satellite feed, in the clear, of normal CBS network programming, and I was given a satellite and transponder to go to, but I’m not a normal viewer in the New York DMA. I would think that there are some viewers on the fringe of the five NYC boroughs who aren’t interested in storm coverage; sub channels were one of the advantages touted during the buildup to ATV transmission.

Andrea Rader says:

February 8, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Thomas, what you’re forgetting is that the confiscatory rights fees for the Olympics pretty much necessitate the current approach. NBC needs to maximize audience levels in prime time to charge high enough ad rates to recover their investment. And when I mean recover, I mean recover – NBC will be lucky to turn a slight profit.


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