The History of Live TV Episodes

From ER to 30 Rock, EastEnders to The Simpsons, live TV drama and comedy episodes are here to stay...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

In 1997, the US TV network NBC gave permission for its highest rated show, the global medical drama hit ER, to produce an episode that would be broadcast to audiences completely live.

It’s hard to explain just how completely out of nowhere that decision was at the time. Live broadcasts began as a cornerstone of television, but once videotape came into use in the late 1950s, it was gradually confined to news bulletins and talent contests. By the 1990s, any comedy or drama that produced a live episode was usually perceived as a show suffering from flagging ratings or creative jaundice, one in dire need of an attention grabbing gimmick.

Let’s be clear – ER was none of those things. The high octane drama was still riding high in the ratings, critics were still salivating over high concept episodes which featured scenarios like guest star Ewan McGregor taking Julianna Margulies hostage, and the show’s breakout star George Clooney was still contracted to another two years on the show. Things were peachy, and one thing networks don’t like to do when things are peachy is rock the boat.

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So NBC allowing their flagship show to go live for what could be a disaster in the making was, to put it lightly, something of a surprise. The reason that said episode (the series four opener “Ambush) was allowed to go live lay primarily with keeping Clooney and his fellow co-star Anthony Edwards happy.

Clooney and Edwards were very keen to try a live instalment of the show, the former’s passion for live television having its roots with his father Nick Clooney’s career, who as a journalist and broadcaster spent a significant amount of his career speaking live to audiences.

Whilst ER wouldn’t lose Clooney for a while yet thanks to that cast iron five year contract, keeping your new superstar happy is never a bad idea (especially if you want him to return for a guest appearance later on), and ER had already made a name for itself with headline grabbing episodes that twisted the knife in, including the first series’ emotionally draining instalment “Love’s Labour Lost and the shocking reveal regarding the demise of Omar Epps’s character in series two. A live episode fit in with that risk taking narrative perfectly.

And so one of the biggest shows in the entire world broadcast live to American audiences. Twice in the same night, to cater for the east and west coast time zones. The equivalent nowadays would be if David Benioff and D. B. Weiss suddenly announced that an upcoming episode of Game Of Thrones was going to be broadcast live on HBO – although admittedly, ER didn’t have CGI dragons to contend with. The show’s writers also cleverly framed the episode through the lens of a documentary crew profiling Chicago’s County General Hospital, meaning that if one of the behind the scenes team managed to accidentally slip into shot, it gave them the perfect out. Viewers noticing a man or woman in a baseball cap clutching a frappuccino is trickier to explain away in Westeros.

The live setting is actually the only notable aspect to “Ambush,” an otherwise forgettable episode, but then maybe that’s to be expected. You’re not going to risk introducing big plot twists or character moments in such a dangerous arena. What happens if the actor flubs their line during the big emotional climax? Or the boom microphone bobs into shot as a character lies dying?

With that particular episode of ER, it was all about the format. The gimmick. But is there anything inherently wrong with that?

The history of television is as littered with stunts and gimmicks as the history of its big screen cousin. Smell-O-Vision. 3D sequences. Viewer votes on who should live or die. The live episode of a drama or comedy is the slightly more respectable offshoot of that kind of populist thinking, and it’s certainly helped a number of shows pick up viewers in later seasons, both in the US and here in the UK.

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And that’s because there’s something especially satisfying about watching a scripted production live on television. It’s the notion that maybe, just maybe, we might see an actor screw up or watch with uncontained glee as the camera tips over. Breaking the fourth wall can be a powerful tool for dramatists, and it’s just as powerful when it’s unintentional.

Live episodes suit comedies especially well, where the prospect of a mess-up or a set malfunction is all part of the appeal. In the case of US sitcom Will & Grace, which did two live episodes in its later years, much of the fun comes from watching Debra Messing and Sean Hayes trying not to corpse as the latter tries to explain why one of his eyebrows has been burned off. 30 Rock did two live (and very slick) episodes, playing off the show’s links to the Saturday Night Live franchise, while The Drew Carey Show did it three times to riff on Carey’s ties to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, drafting in the likes of Whose Line regulars Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles.

Even if you didn’t watch these episodes live, if you go in not knowing whether there were any foul ups or not, there’s still something undeniably exciting about watching them later on.

For British viewers who weren’t around in the days of Z Cars, most of our “live drama” experiences have come from the soaps, whether that be Coronation Street, EastEnders or Emmerdale. Usually put together to celebrate milestones or boost ratings, they’re primarily remembered for water cooler moments like the mortified look on Jo Joyner’s face when she realises she’s called Ian Beale by the name of the actor who plays him.

Weirdly, the very appeal of the live episode is negated when everything goes too well. Coronation Street has done a few live broadcasts now, and they’ve all gone off with nary a hitch, barring a few continuity errors and wobbly cameras. It was curiously unsatisfying, which is a strange way to look at something that involves a considerable amount of planning and long work days for TV crews, but that element of schadenfreude is part of a live episode’s appeal, and it’s all part of the deal programmes make with their audience when they go live.

They know we’re watching to see if it all goes pear shaped, and that’s a risk producers are willing to take to both increase viewership and also challenge their cast and crew, the latter especially valuable when you’re working on something like a soap, where the constant demand for weekly content can become monotonous.

The most recent live broadcast could well have been the most unlikely. Only last year, The Simpsons featured two three minute segments at the tail end of an episode called “Simprovised,” whereby voice artist Dan Castellaneta was motion captured to produce a slightly jerky Homer Simpson answering questions from the fans. It was more reminiscent of a cut scene from a Simpsons videogame, but it achieved what it intended to – some increased awareness for a show that has long slipped from the forefront of popular culture.

In an age where television is more polished than ever, there’s something charming about the rough and ready presentation of a live drama or comedy. We live in a time when entire seasons of a show are wrapped, edited and packaged months before they’re released in one huge data drop. The fact that you simply cannot do that with a live episode gives them a special aura, one which hearkens back to the medium’s nascent days whilst also offering a hint of potential catastrophe.

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You want to see what happens, you want to keep looking. And ultimately, that’s all television wants from us.

To keep looking.