Live TV still shines in an on-demand world

Snapshots from the world of live TV in recent weeks:

American Idol judge Paula Abdul, looking dazed and confused, critiques a song yet to be sung by contestant Jason Castro. Painfully awkward hardly starts to describe the moment.


Another contestant, Brooke White, forgets the lyrics to a big, loud ballad and brings the orchestra to a crashing halt by turning to the conductor and saying, "I'm sorry."

Chilean film star Cristian de la Fuente blows out a tendon in his arm and, with a grimace on his face, stops dead in his tracks while doing the samba on ABC's Dancing with the Stars.


Forget the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination and the war in Iraq, no topic last week was more discussed in the blogosphere than Abdul's Tuesday-night goof on live TV before 24 million viewers. A night earlier, de la Fuente's real-time injury in front of 18 million fans was all the buzz.

While much of the online discussion in recent days has focused on Abdul's mental health and possible fallout for Fox's American Idol from her gaffe, pop culture analysts and reality show insiders saw another larger lesson to be learned from Paula, Brooke and Cristian: the enduring power of live TV, the oldest form of network programming, in an environment that is supposed to be all about new media and monumental change.

"In many ways, flubs on live television have always been the most exciting thing on television, because it's at those times that it becomes crystal clear to viewers that they are seeing something that is really spontaneously happening in real time, as opposed to something that is staged or scripted as are so many parts of our culture these days," says Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University.

"So, Paula Abdul somehow having access to a time machine and being able to see that the guy had sung his second song, when in fact he didn't, is a very sweet moment. It's clearly personally embarrassing for Abdul, but I would bet that the number of viewers for American Idol will increase for the next week or two or three. And a large part of the reason for the rise will be the unspoken hope among those viewers that maybe another big mistake will be made, and they'll be there to witness it."

For the record, Abdul, one of three judges on the Fox competition series, has since explained her confusion in two different ways -- mainly adding to the confusion.

The problem started with the producers of Idol, the highest-rated show on TV, changing the format just before Tuesday night's telecast. The plan was to have each contestant sing two songs, and then have the judges critique them both. But just before airtime, a decision was made to have the judge's respond to each song.

After Castro had finished his first number, Abdul reviewed his performance commenting both on song number one -- and the song he had yet to sing.

Later in the broadcast, Abdul said that she became confused while looking at her notes and had thought she was critiquing the performance of another male contestant -- rather than Castro.


But then on Wednesday, she changed her story and said she had inadvertently seen part of a dress rehearsal for Tuesday night's live show and mixed up Castro's performance in dress rehearsal with the performance he had not yet given during the live broadcast.

"We all just screwed up everything," she said. "But we all went, 'This is live TV -- it's actually fun.'"

Abdul has a history of goofs during her seven years as an Idol judge. They range from doing a series of network morning show interviews last year in which she appeared drunk, to looking as if she had fallen asleep at the judges' desk during the auditions in Omaha last summer. She blamed both on prescription medications and exhaustion.

Two years ago, ABC News reported claims that she had an affair with a male contestant. Abdul refused to comment, but made light of the situation in a skit on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Some analysts speculated that her admission last week that judges sometimes saw dress rehearsals and drafted comments in response to what they saw would damage the credibility of the show.

But if a judge having an affair with a contestant didn't do serious damage to viewer trust, it is hard to see how the same judge watching a dress rehearsal and taking notes would.


As to her lifting a curtain on the practice of live shows having dress rehearsals, how else could the producers time a telecast without such pre-air run-throughs? It is a process that started in 1948 with one of prime-time network TV's earliest live telecasts, NBC's legendary The Milton Berle Show. It has continued for the past 60 years.

Nor do such run-throughs make the shows feel less live and more contrived -- at least to the contestants, according to Mario, the Baltimore-born rhythm & blues singer who is a finalist on Dancing with the Stars. The ABC program is the second highest rated series on television.

"It's totally live -- and you really feel it when you're the one out there about to start dancing before millions," he says. "That's the best part of the show -- that it's live. If it was just a recorded show, your nerves wouldn't be as bad."

The 21-year-old performer says the emphasis on live is no accident.

"They set it up that way purposefully," he says of the show's producers. "Because it's live, the energy's different, the performances are more intense, and more respect comes from those watching the show."

Sheri Parks, professor of popular culture at the University of Maryland, said she believes that much of the success of Idol and Dancing is directly attributable to being live broadcasts -- perhaps more "live" than any other non-news show on television. Just as being live heightens performance on- screen, so does it intensify the viewing experience. And rather than all the new online media diminishing that power, they have only amplified it.


"So much of our lives are now virtual -- where we're online or we're going back to look at TV shows that have already aired or been online -- that we're often out of time-synch now," Parks says. "So, there is some real excitement in knowing that you're watching something unusual as it actually happens. While it's something we might have taken for granted 20 years ago, now it's special, because so much of our lives are lived in online replay."

Parks says that while she believes Abdul's behavior might raise some "ethical questions" for Idol, ultimately the on-air mistakes can be a good thing on a variety of levels.

"Such goofs remind us that the judges and performers are human and that this is live -- and they collapse that distance that has been created because of the virtual nature of viewing television online the last few years," she says.

"Besides, we all -- children, particularly -- compare TV reality to social reality, and unfortunately, social reality comes up short. It's a good thing for all of us to be reminded that TV reality's not perfect either."