As viewers in record numbers time-shift shows and watch them on demand, networks are scrambling to get audiences back into the habit of watching TV as it airs. "Everyone is so concerned about DVRing, which is a legitimate concern," says one exec. "Anything you can do to minimize it is a bonus."
That includes a nod to the early days of TV: live programming. Next fall, the networks are expected to air more regular live broadcasts than at any time since the 1950s, thanks to competition shows The X Factor, Dancing With the Stars and The Voice (American Idol returns mid-season). All three reality shows will air their performance and results shows on multiple nights, for at least three hours per show each week. Additionally, NBC will continue to broadcast Sunday Night Football and is mulling live prime-time Saturday Night Live election specials. Fox will join ABC with live college football games on Saturday nights.
Live TV programming was relegated to specials and sports events by the mid-1950s, when series (inspired by I Love Lucy) moved to film and videotape. But the explosion of live, studio-based reality competitions over the past decade has revived the genre. "If you go back to the start of American Idol, there's a hunger for sharing an event," says Ted Linhart, senior VP of research at USA Networks (which has aired live WWE programming for years). "It's a shared experience and [provides] the ability to be a part of something that you see before you read about it the next day."
Networks like live programming because not only are viewers more likely to tune in while it happens, but odds are good they'll stick around for the show that follows. And, of course, live viewing increases the chances that viewers will watch the commercials — and these days, networks sell ad time based on three days' worth of a show's commercial viewership, not the show itself.
Idol, Dancing and The Voice are not time-shifted (on a percentage basis) nearly as often as scripted shows like Modern Family or The Mentalist. "It's good for us now that we have a live show," Lisa Vebber, NBC's senior vice president of scheduling, says of The Voice. "Live viewing is still the best lead-in to whatever is behind it. I still think lead-ins are important, and the more live viewers you can get to tune in to other shows, scripted and otherwise, the better."
That's why the price tag for sports rights, like for the NFL and the Olympics, has skyrocketed in recent years (and why, ultimately, you're paying more for your satellite and cable bills). Live sporting events and awards shows are truly the most DVR-proof fare left, and ratings for these programs have been on the rise. "Look at almost every sport in the last several years and it's going up in ratings," Vebber says. "There's just that appetite."
Social media like Twitter, Facebook and Get Glue have been widely credited with helping drive interest in live telecasts, as users' posts encourage others to tune in. The networks are eager to emulate that success with non-live scripted fare, enticing viewers back to the screen via live Tweets, check-ins and chats. Every network now includes a hashtag on its screen; Fox and NBC recently went a step further, adding plot-specific on-screen hashtags that correlate to action happening at that moment.
"While it's hard to associate that with ratings, it does seem to inspire fans to make an effort to watch live," Linhart says. "It's giving them something they won't be able to get if they watch it later."