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Live Television (accidentally and gloriously) Returns

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
(Image credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Live television today is nothing like it was during the medium’s pioneering years. In those simpler times, sets fell down, lights exploded and all sorts of “disasters” happened unexpectedly over the airwaves. Now, live television has been so perfected and scripted that things rarely go wrong.

That is…until they do. Quite suddenly, accidents can still happen and sometimes they turn into great television. At times like these, human beings drop their on-camera personas and become their real selves for the world to see. That wonderful serendipity happened on a summer night at the “We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert,” a globally televised music event on August 21 on CNN. 

It was supposed to be New York City’s comeback after the pandemic. Recording mogul Clive Davis had assembled a who’s who of top named entertainers for what was billed as a five-hour live spectacular from Central Park’s Great Lawn.

EXCUSE THE INTERRUPTION

Then, suddenly, halfway through the concert, a record-breaking rainstorm—with thunder and lightning—blew in over Central Park. Barry Manilow was in mid-song early in his set when the concert was halted. Abruptly, thousands in the crowd were told to find the nearest exit and proceed to protected areas outside of the event site. Artists like Elvis Costello, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen had yet to perform.

With forecasts that the storm would pass within a half hour or so, the concert was in temporary suspension. CNN was forced to stay on the air and vamp for time. CNN host Anderson Cooper — backed with inaccurate weather forecasting and no idea when or if the concert would resume — was saved when Barry Manilow called the studio from his backstage trailer on a mobile phone. 

With a piano in his trailer, Manilow—ever the entertainer—sang his hit, “I Made It Through the Rain,” over the phone live to CNN. He had planned to sing the song on stage before the stormy ending and was determined to sing it now as the rain poured down outside.

Manilow opened the floodgate for other performers to phone in or do live video from backstage. The Killers performed impromptu backstage musical numbers over live iPhone video; Steven Colbert, Elvis Costello and Patti Smith called in to chat about both serious and light subjects with Cooper. Carlos Santana, already having performed his set at the concert, visited the CNN studio. 

All dropped their formal stage characters and became real people—joyously talking of such matters as stealing food from each other’s snack tables. It was real life, hair down, backstage banter on live, international television, and it was perhaps as good as the concert itself. 

“I am watching historic broadcasting right now,” Colbert told Cooper on the phone as he watched CNN from the performance tent. “I am enjoying this moment of you killing time. You are spinning straw into gold.”

At about 10:30 p.m., it became clear that the forecasters were dead wrong and the weather was getting worse—not better. Finally, the concert was officially cancelled and the performers scattered. But that hour or so of impromptu bantering from the musicians backstage while they waited in the storm added to the rich history of great live television accidents. 

Of course, from the vintage live drama and variety shows through the early years of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” viewers have always known that anything was possible. In that era, we watched in expectation of the outrageous. Can you imagine John Belushi performing in today’s environment? These days he probably 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 truly 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.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION

For the people who broke into television during the medium’s formative years, it was the use of videotape beginning in about 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,” the pre-eminent kid’s 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 Box with seltzer water?) and the high energy level insured 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 talk shows, 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, profanities and “costume malfunctions” occasionally made it on the air back then as well. 

All the old-timers say the so-called “mistakes” often resulted in the best moments on television and infected viewers, who loved the idea that anything could and might happen during a live broadcast.

Videotape, they will also 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.

So, it is always refreshing today when things go delightfully wrong on live broadcasts. The Central Park experience proved chaos can still make great television.