The Death of Live Television

The fervor by politicians this election year to rid America's airwaves of "indecency" is not only a threat to the constitutional rights of performers but a dangerous threat to over-the-air broadcasters.
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The fervor by politicians this election year to rid America's airwaves of "indecency" is not only a threat to the constitutional rights of performers but a dangerous threat to over-the-air broadcasters.

News reports noted that even members of Congress who voted for fining performers for suggestive utterances on live television privately expressed confidence their own muzzle law will never hold up in the courts. This means their action was only a show for the voters. Yes, we live in cynical times.

Others, like Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a Long Island Democrat, put it more bluntly: "This is going to become a very dark day in American history. We're going down the slippery slope of limiting our constitution and the protections that it gives to the American people."

Ackerman suggested that if television viewers don't like the programming, they can simply change the channel. Or better yet, "they can turn it off," he suggested.

Performers will either escape the steep fines proposed by Congress through First Amendment protections or they'll boycott over-the-air broadcasting altogether and move to pay TV. However, evasion of such a misguided law is not going to be that easy for terrestrial broadcasters, who graze on publicly owned spectrum.

DO AS I SAY

Most who have a clue about television programming know that audiences say one thing and do another when it comes to viewing racy content. It was pornography that put videocassette technology on the map in the first place. A Southern religious evangelist revealed that he once bought satellite time following a popular satellite-delivered porno show because he knew the true nature of his viewers.

Despite FCC chairman Michael Powell's "outrage" at the Janet Jackson Super Bowl flap, that single moment set the nation's TiVo recorders into a historic level of replay hyperdrive. Was that because Americans were outraged or intrigued? Please, you know the answer.

With broadcasters already lining up to buy time-delay devices, the outcome of this election-driven flap will be to essentially end live television as we've known it. Oh yes, the networks will still pretend that events like the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards are live. But the censor will always be standing by to strike a blow to any bit of serendipity that doesn't follow the approved script.

Eventually, the only genuine live events-the ones with edgy unpredictability-will migrate to pay television and beyond the control of the political demagogues at the FCC and in Congress. Outside of the viewers themselves, the ones to be most hurt by this censorship will be over-the-air broadcasters. They will lose more of an already declining young audience.

EXPECTING THE UNEXPECTED

To understand what's being lost, just look at the rich history of early television. From the vintage live drama and variety shows through the early years of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," the viewers knew that anything was possible. We watched in expectation of the outrageous. Can you imagine John Belushi performing in today's environment? These days he couldn't get past studio security at Rockefeller Center to even do the show!

I have always been intrigued by the adventure and creativity of live broadcasting. Not only did I grow up watching live shows, but in my college years I operated a turret-type monochrome RCA camera on a daily live kids' show. Later, I got to know some of the people who worked and performed on live network broadcasts. I loved their war stories and could listen for hours.

For this lucky generation, the people who came into television during the medium's formative years, it was the use of videotape beginning around 1958 that sanitized and permanently changed the business. Video recording, the old timers lamented, sucked the life out of television.

Before their deaths, I had conversations on this subject with Milton Berle, the pioneering comedian who became known as "Mr. Television" after emerging as the first real TV star on NBC; Jackie Gleason, who knew just as much about what happens behind the camera as in front; and Buffalo Bob Smith, who hosted the 13-year run of NBC's "Howdy Doody Show," the preeminent kids' show of my youth.

Each of these performers relied on physical comedy and each relished the accidents that breathed tension into their live television broadcasts.

Milton Berle recalled that some of his best moments came during accidents, such as falling scenery or misplaced props. He told me he held membership in several labor unions simultaneously during his live TV days so he could do any job required on the show-including emergency carpentry with a hammer and nails on a fallen set wall during commercial breaks.

"They didn't call me 'Mr. Television' for nothing," he liked to say of his off-camera skills.

Buffalo Bob, an endlessly cheerful entertainer who used to do naughty "blue" versions of the Howdy Doody show for his sponsors before the live broadcast, also respected a sense of spontaneity (remember how Clarabell used to randomly squirt Buffalo Bob with seltzer water?) and the high energy level ensured by the piercing eye of the live camera.

Gleason, who began his performing career as a carnival barker and in vaudeville-burlesque houses, valued the live performance as essential to his comedy. Even when he decided to do "The Honeymooners" as a filmed sitcom, Gleason did the show with minimal rehearsal before a live audience to gain spontaneity.

Whether comedy, live drama or even talkshows, veterans of live television will tell you it was different when there were no "safety nets" to protect against mistakes and other slip-ups. And yes, god forbid, profanities and "wardrobe malfunctions" occasionally made it on the air back then as well.

BEST MOMENTS ON TV

The old-timers will also tell you that these so-called "mistakes" often resulted in the best moments on television and also infected viewers, who loved the idea that anything could and might happen during a live broadcast.

Videotape, they will tell you, not only largely ended this creative tension, but shifted power away from the live performers to the bean-counting suits upstairs. The loose, fly-by-the-pants "golden age" of live television gave way to the tightly controlled, ratings-dominated era when every second counted for big dollars.

Now, with time-delay technology looming over the few remaining live events left on TV, the censor gains new power. We saw the result recently with the broadcast of the Academy Awards, one of the most boring, restrained events in memory.

It's a sad day for TV. Wake me up when it's over.