Ratings for scripted and reality cable shows may get all the headlines, but live programming has drawn cable’s biggest audiences this year.
As the cable environment moves quickly toward more viewing of top scripted and reality shows via DVR or on-demand, live telecasts remain the industry’s best bet for linear appointment viewing, cable-network executives said. And the unpredictable nature of live events drives social-media usage on alternative screens for networks that take the risk and go live.
“Live programming is having a big rebirth right now because its drawing people back the sets and it’s exciting,” Cyndi McClellan, E!’s president of network strategy and E! News, said. “You’re not sure what you’re going to get.”
There’s no disputing the ratings draw of live sports and special event programming.
Sixteen of the top 20 most watched shows in cable history are live telecasts of college or pro football games, according to Nielsen.
Just this year several live events have made ratings headlines, including ESPN’s Jan. 7 Bowl Championship Series title game between Alabama and Notre Dame, which drew 26.3 million viewers — cable’s second-highest number ever, behind the 27.3 million viewers who watched ESPN’s January 2011 Auburn-Oregon BCS Championship Game telecast, according to Nielsen.
Aside from sports, other live events that reconnected with audiences in 2013 included the BET Awards on June 30, which drew 7.7 million viewers for its best performance in two years, and Aug. 25’s MTV Video Music Awards, which saw Miley Cyrus’ twerking exhibition tally a 66% audience increase over 2012.
Discovery Channel had its biggest audience since 2000 on June 23 when 12 million viewers tuned into for a live telecast of Nik Wallenda’s successful Grand Canyon crossing, while viewers shelled out a record $150 million in pay-per-view revenues to watch Showtime’s Sept. 14 Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez boxing telecast.
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Though they don’t generate the same blockbuster audiences as event coverage, live series are also finding an audience, executives said. AMC’s Talking Dead — a weekly series where a panel of fans, stars and host Chris Hardwick discuss what just happened on that evening’s episode of The Walking Dead — drew a series-record 5.1 million viewers for its third-season premiere Oct. 13.
USA Network’s weekly pro-wrestling juggernaut WWE Monday Night Raw — now in its 20th season — continues to draw more than 4 million viewers per week.
Bravo has also made live shows a staple of its daily lineup. Watch What Happens Live has featured pop culture news and celebrity interviews in late night since it launched as a daily strip show in 2012, according to Jerry Leo, executive vice president of program strategy and production.
Hosted by network executive Andy Cohen, Watch What Happens Live features lively debates on everything from fashion, to which celebrity is making headlines, and has drawn such high-powered talent as Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga. It has become one of Bravo’s most popular shows, averaging nearly 1 million viewers in the 11 p.m. time slot.
“You never know what’s going to happen and there’s a lot of unpredictability,” he said. “But that’s perfect for Bravo — we like that vibrant, unexpected, exciting kind of moment.”
The raw, interactive elements of live programming have also worked well for BET’s music-video countdown series 106th and Park since it launched in 2000. Stephen Hill, president of music programming for the African-American targeted network, said that the audience’s ability to interact with the show through the series’ 106 & Park app provides a unique interactive experience for viewers.
“Our audience has a desire to connect with us, so 106 & Park is important for keeping direct contact with our audience,” Hill said. “That live connection is important for the network.”
The real-time nature of live programming also gives producers the ability to drive traffic on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media outlets. For instance, Cyrus’s VMA performance drew a record 360,000 tweets per minute as it was happening on air, MTV officials said.
“[Live programming provides] the ability to provide unique content that is fully integrated with real time social media,” said Mark Cuban, chairman of AXS TV, which offers a host of live shows including music series AXS TV Concerts, standup comedy show Gotham Comedy Live and sports talk show Inside MMA.
Cuban added: “I can motivate social media and respond and interact with it … that is a unique proposal.”
Executives also point to the unpredictability of live programming that keeps audiences tuning in, although they admit offering live, unedited content is like walking a tightrope because you have little control over what’s going on the air.
“A lot can go wrong if you don’t have experience,” Cuban said.
At one point, Hill said, BET thought about pre-recording 106 & Park because it couldn’t control what was seen on-air. But executives decided that the audience’s ability to interact with the show live was worth the risk.
“Our audience is one that’s about immediate consumption,” Hill said. “If we go to pre-taped segments, it just takes one audience member to tweet, ‘In two days, you’re going to see a show in which Drake hugs up on [series host] Keisha Shante.’ It would spoil the surprises we can get on the live show.”
The ability of live series and franchises to draw viewers can also aid in helping networks market and promote their scripted and reality fare. E!’s Live From the Red Carpet specials, which precede big entertainment awards shows like the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes, the Grammys and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, are among the network’s most-watched events. This past September’s event for the Primetime Emmy Awards drew 1.5 million viewers, the show's most-watched telecast in seven years.
E! plans to air a Live From the Red Carpet show from next month’s American Music Awards.
“We use it as a platform and get people invested and interested in new or existing shows that we have,” E!’s McClellan said. “It’s a tremendous promotional platform for us as well as brand-defining that we’re actually at these big events.”
Cable networks are generating big audience numbers and social-media traction with live events and series.