When NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! drew an astounding 18.6 million viewers last November, giving the network its highest non-sports Thursday night ratings since 2004, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt knew he had stumbled upon something crucial to broadcast networks’ survival: audiences crave live programming.
“We do it with sporting events, music competition shows and reality shows. There’s a lot of live things on television,” Greenblatt told Quartz in July. “The Today show is live every day; The Tonight Show is taped within hours of its broadcast. There’s a lot of immediacy, but not in scripted programming. So we’ve been talking about doing a live sitcom. We just have to find the right show.”
Now, Greenblatt seems to have done just that. NBC is developing a sitcom called Hospitality, about the hospitality staff of a midtown Manhattan hotel, which would air live each week, and even have live commercials air during the breaks.
Aside from the occasional live episode stunt, like 30 Rock and Will & Grace—and Saturday Night Live, which has been “live, from New York” since 1975—a primetime series hasn’t aired a full season live since Fox’s sitcom Roc did so during its second season in 1992-93. Before then, it hadn’t happened since the 1950s, when shows were routinely broadcast live.
Greenblatt, who oversaw primetime programming at Fox during Roc’s live season, tells Quartz that the experiment didn’t work at the time, because the show didn’t actually “feel” live to viewers. (Roc returned to its original, pre-taped format for its third, and final, season.) “Those actors were so good, they never made a mistake. At the end of the season we went, well, it didn’t really move the rating, and it didn’t feel live, because they were so polished,” he said. “But I think we could make that an event. I think the live thing is really a great thing to look at in scripted coverage.”
His hope is to replicate the same “anything can happen” feeling that he, and millions of viewers, had while watching Sound of Music. “The thrill of Sound of Music was I was there when they were shooting it in the studio, so I was watching the performance and simultaneously getting emails from people who are watching the performance,” said Greenblatt. “From Tina Fey, and a whole bunch of people who were watching it and saying, ‘Oh My God, this is so exciting’ and ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ It was thrilling to realize that they were seeing that same performance that I was standing there watching. And somehow people felt that.”
That’s why Greenblatt has already announced Peter Pan Live! for Dec. 4. But as audiences are increasingly watching TV on their own schedule, NBC and the other networks are scrambling to cultivate even more event programming, where advertisers can get the most bang for their advertising buck. Last year’s top-rated shows were live, “DVR-proof” events like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and the Grammys, while each week, live broadcasts like Sunday Night Football, The Voice and Dancing with the Stars routinely crack the Top 10.
If Greenblatt can find the same success with Hospitality, he’ll be able to give NBC’s once-popular “Must-See TV” slogan a modern spin: “Must-See Live TV.”