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Live television

Live television refers to a television production broadcast in real-time, as events happen, in the present. From the early days of television until about 1958, live television was used heavily, except for filmed shows such as I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke. Video tape did not exist until 1957. Television networks provide most live television mostly for morning shows with television programs such as: Today, Good Morning America & CBS This Morning in the US (abeit...only airing live in the Eastern Time Zone), and Daybreak, BBC Breakfast, This Morning, etc. in the UK.

Most local television station newscasts are broadcast live in the U.S.

In general a live television program was more common for broadcasting content produced specifically for commercial television in the early years of the medium, before technologies such as video tape appeared. As video tape recorders (VTR) became more prevalent, many entertainment programs were recorded and edited before broadcasting rather than being shown live. Entertainment events such as sports television and The Academy Awards continue to be generally broadcast live.


Uses of live television

Live television is often used as a device, even when it is not necessary, in various types of programming to take advantage of these qualities, often to great success in terms of attracting viewers. The NBC live comedy/variety program Saturday Night Live, for example, has been on that network continuously since 1975.

On September 25, 1997, NBC broadcast a special live episode of its hospital drama ER, which at the time ranked as the third most-watched episode of any medical drama program ever. Many television news programs, particularly local news ones in North America, have also used live television as a device to gain audience viewers by making their programs appear more exciting. With technologies such as production trucks, satellite truck uplinks, a news reporter can report live "on location" from anywhere where a story is happening in the city. This technique has attracted criticism for its overuse (like minor car accidents which often have no injuries) and resulting tendency to make stories appear more urgent than they actually are.

The unedited nature of live television can pose problems for television networks because of the potential for mishaps. To enforce the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, television networks often broadcast live programs on a slight broadcast delay to give them the ability to censor words and images while keeping the broadcast as "live" as possible.

Memorable events on live television

Many events have happened on live television broadcasts that are well-remembered, sometimes because they were part of a major breaking news story already, and always because they happened unexpectedly and before audiences of thousands or millions of viewers.


  • September 4, 1951  The first national live television broadcast in the U.S. took place on when President Harry Truman's speech at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco, California was transmitted over AT&T's transcontinental cable and microwave radio relay system to broadcast stations in local markets.[1][2][3]
  • June 2, 1953  the coronation of Her Majesty Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom was the first to be televised live on British television.
  • November 24, 1963  Lee Harvey Oswald (the alleged assassin of U.S. President John F. Kennedy) was shot in Dallas by nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being transferred to a county jail. Oswald was taken to Parkland Hospital, the same hospital in which President Kennedy and Governor Connally had been treated two days before, but died within approximately two hours after being shot.
  • November 25, 1963  President John F. Kennedy's funeral was broadcast on live TV. It was seen by perhaps what was the largest viewing audience up to then. It was the first live TV coverage of a Presidential funeral. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas three days before, on November 22, 1963. The assassination itself initiated four days of non-stop live television news coverage seen by millions.
  • December 7, 1963  Instant replay is used for the first time during the live transmission of the Army Navy Game by its inventor, director Tony Verna.
  • November 13, 1965  Critic and author Kenneth Tynan became the first person to say the word "fuck" on British television on the live satirical programme BBC-3 while commenting on censorship during a TV debate.
  • December 24, 1968  Apollo 8 Genesis reading during the 9th orbit of the moon.
  • July 20, 1969  Apollo 11, the first moon landing.
  • November 7, 1970  Felix Dennis, in a group interview on The Frost Programme, becomes the first person to say "cunt" on live TV.
  • July 15, 1974  Christine Chubbuck, a television news reporter for station WXLT-TV in Sarasota, Florida, committed suicide on live television by firing a revolver shot into her head.
  • January 28, 1986  The Challenger explosion was seen on live TV by millions in the U.S.
  • January 22, 1987  Budd Dwyer committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a revolver during a televised press conference.
  • November 9, 1989  Live coverage of the abolishment of travel restrictions and the opening of the border to West Berlin after mass panic and jubilation from East Germans.
  • June 17, 1994  The O. J. Simpson murder case slow-speed car chase of a Ford Bronco vehicle containing American football star and murder suspect O. J. Simpson was broadcast live throughout the U.S., with NBC interrupting its coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals to do so.
  • April 30, 1998  Daniel V. Jones, a cancer and HIV-positive patient apparently frustrated with his HMO coverage, ended a live televised stand-off with police on a Los Angeles freeway by committing suicide, shooting himself in the chin with a shotgun. The event, which took place on a Thursday afternoon, was witnessed by many children whose after-school cartoons had been interrupted in order to broadcast the incident, which originally began as a high-speed pursuit, and led many to criticize Los Angeles television stations' practice of airing police pursuits live.
  • September 11, 2001  At 09:03am Eastern Daylight Time, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, in front of millions of viewers who were already watching live coverage of the unfolding terrorist attacks of that day. Major networks had broken into regular programming just minutes earlier with live shots of the twin towers after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower at 08:46am. Millions of viewers around the world watching live coverage of the attacks saw both buildings collapse.
  • March 23, 2003  Sky News broadcast live coverage of US forces attacking an Iraqi position. Sky reporter David Bowden, embedded with the US Marines, gave a live running commentary on the battle, something viewers had not seen before.
  • July 7, 2005  A live television report on the unfolding situation on the 7 July 2005 London bombings captured the sound of the Tavistock Square bus explosion at 09:46 British Summer Time.
  • September 21, 2005  JetBlue Airways Flight 292 made an emergency landing in Los Angeles. The passengers were able to watch the incident unfold on live television.
  • August 16, 2008  Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili chewed a tie during the news headlines on the BBC.
  • April 30, 2009  During live coverage of a parade on the Dutch holiday Koninginnedag in the city of Apeldoorn, Netherlands an attack took place on the Dutch Royal Family after Karst R. Tates drove a car into a crowd of people before crashing into a monument. Although the royal family themselves were unharmed, the incident resulted in a total of 8 fatalities leaving many others injured.
  • August 23, 2010  The tourist bus have been hostage in Qurino Granstand in Metro Manila Philippines killing 9 people including the hostage taker Rolando Mendoza
  • April 29, 2011  The Royal Wedding of Prince William (Duke of Cambridge) and Catherine Middleton was watched live by over 2 billion people worldwide.


  • November 30, 1958  Midway through transmission of the Armchair Theatre play Underground on the British ITV network, actor Gareth Jones died off-camera, forcing the video production to improvise for the remainder of the broadcast.
  • September 17, 1967  While The Doors performed "Light My Fire" on The Ed Sullivan Show, frontman Jim Morrison used the word "higher" instead of the previously agreed-upon change "better".
  • March 5, 1975  Graham Kennedy mimicked a crow call ("faaaaaaark") remniscient of the word fuck during a hairspray ad on The Graham Kennedy Show on the Nine Network in Australia. He was banned from live TV indefinitely for the stunt. He quits the network on April 17 after the network took advantage of the pre-taping to delete a speech critical of Senator Doug McClelland (the then Minister for the Media).
  • October 11, 1975  First episode of Saturday Night Live broadcast.
  • December 1, 1976  Appearing in a live interview on the Thames Television pre-watershed programme Today as last-minute replacements for fellow EMI artists Queen, the Sex Pistols were interviewed by Bill Grundy to promote their recently released Anarchy in the UK single. During the interview, Steve Jones said the band had "fucking spent" its label advance and Johnny Rotten used the word "shit." Pistols guitarist Steve Jones called Grundy a "dirty sod" and a "dirty old man", leading Grundy to goad the band into swearing on live TV, and Jones ended the interview with "you dirty bastard," "you dirty fucker," and "what a fucking rotter".[4] Grundy was fired by ITV and Today was cancelled.
  • February 20, 1981  Appearing on the live ABC comedy show Fridays as guest host, comedian Andy Kaufman refused to read his lines during the last sketch, to the annoyance of the cast and crew. The situation escalated into a minor brawl, and the network cut off the broadcast. Kaufman later admitted that the fight was planned by him and some of the cast and crew.
  • April 15, 1984  Comedian Tommy Cooper collapsed and subsequently died of a heart attack in front of millions of viewers on Live From Her Majesty's. The audience carried on laughing thinking it was part of his act, before the programme took a commercial break.
  • January 4, 1987  A massive bench-clearing brawl occurred in the World Junior Hockey Championships between Canada and the Soviet Union. After Pavel Kostichkin took a two handed slash at Theoren Fleury, the Soviet Union's Evgeny Davydov came off the bench, eventually leading to both benches clearing. The officials walked off the ice and tried shutting off the arena lights, but the brawl lasted for 20 minutes until the IIHF declared the game null and void. Both teams were ejected from the tournament, and the Soviet team were barred from attending the end-of-tournament dinner.
  • October 17, 1989  Right before Game 3 of The 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, the Loma Prieta earthquake occurred.
  • February 1, 2004  During a performance by singers Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl XXXVIII half time show, Timberlake pulled off a part of Jackson's leather corset, revealing her right breast covered by a piece of jewelry attached to her nipple. He later described the incident as a "wardrobe malfunction". The incident caused outrage among religious groups and demands for the FCC to crack down on indecency on television and radio.
  • April 21, 2004  After commenting on a UEFA Champions League match on ITV1, Ron Atkinson thought that the broadcast had finished. However, although transmission in the UK had finished, he was still on air to various countries in the Middle East and proceeded to say that "...he is what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger" towards Marcel Desailly. He resigned with immediate effect.
  • August 20, 2006  During a live dance performance of "Crazy Love Song" by the female pop trio Seeya on the Korean television program SBS Inkigayo, a backup dancer who suffered from epilepsy had a seizure in the middle of the song. The performers ignored the interruption and completed the performance normally before and after the dancer was carried off the stage.
  • April 14, 2007  At the conclusion of an AFL match between Fremantle and West Coast on Network Ten, Eagles player Michael Braun concluded his Ross Glenndenning Medal acceptance speech with "Let's have a fucking good year" in front of a TV audience of 550,000 and a crowd of 42,051. Braun was fined $5,500 by the AFL for the incident.

Live television episodes

Although all programs were once live, the use of video tape means that very few television programs in the modern era have ever attempted such a feat. In the U.S., soap operas including As the World Turns and The Edge of Night were broadcast live until 1975. The most recent scripted series to do so on a regular basis was the Charles S. Dutton series Roc in the 1992-93 season.

However, on occasion, scripted series will do an episode live to attract ratings. In the U.S. and Canada, the episode is occasionally performed twice: once for the east coast which is composed of the Eastern time zone and Central time zone and again three hours later for the west coast which is composed of the Mountain time zone and the Pacific time zone. Notable examples of shows that have had a live episode include:

In recent years there have been a number of special films broadcast live as well. These include the remakes of Fail Safe (2000) and The Quatermass Experiment (2005).

A live television advertisement was shown for the first time in 40 years to celebrate the arrival of the new Honda Accord in the United Kingdom. It was broadcast on Channel Four on 29 May 2008 at 20:10 during a special episode of 'Come Dine With Me'. The ad featured skydivers forming the letters of the word Honda over Spain.

Live television specials

Many live television specials were telecast during the pre-videotape era. Among the most successful were the 1955 and 1956 telecasts of Peter Pan, a 1954 musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie's 1904 play, starring Mary Martin, and Cyril Ritchard. This was such a hit that the show was restaged and rebroadcast (this time on videotape) with the same two stars and most of the rest of the cast in 1960, and rerun several times after that. The Peter Pan telecasts marked the first-ever telecasts of a complete Broadway musical with most of its original cast.

Further reading

  • No Retakes, by Sandra Grabman and Wright King. BearManor Media, 2008.
  • Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, by Sid Caesar with Eddy Friedfeld. Public Affairs, 2003.
  • The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961, by Jeff Kisseloff. Penguin Books, 1995.
  • The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors, by Gorham Kindem. McFarland, 1994.
  • Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York, by Frank Sturcken. McFarland, 1990.
  • Golden Age of Television: Notes from the Survivors, by Max Wilk. Moyer Bell Limited, 1989.
  • Where Have I Been? An Autobiography, by Sid Caesar with Bill Davidson, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1982.


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