Cable Nets Creep Into Live Programming

Live sports and news event programming  have been huge ratings plays for cable networks  this year, from ESPN’s cable record-setting  audience for the Jan. 12 Ohio State-Oregon  College Football Playoff National Championship  game to Fox News Channel’s stunning performance for its Republican Presidential Debate on Aug. 6.

Three other networks this week are  looking to tap into the excitement and unpredictability  of live programming with  specials that, if successful, could usher in a  new era of live entertainment fare on cable  beyond awards shows.

National Geographic Channel kicked things off  Sunday (Oct. 25) with Brain Surgery Live, featuring a  renowned surgical team performing a deep brain stimulation  surgery on an awake patient in real time. The neurological  procedure — performed on a retired Navy chief  petty officer who suffers from tremors due to the early  onset of Parkinson’s disease — was billed as the first live  telecast of its kind, acknowledging the remarkable technological  achievements in the medical field.

Catering to viewers looking for thrills and chills during  Halloween week, A&E on Monday (Oct.  26) digs up a special that will test the limits  of fear among three participants who have  volunteered to be buried alive, live. A&E is  marketing the special, Fear: Buried Alive, as  more of a psychological experiment testing  — and hopefully conquering — fear itself,  but many viewers will undoubtedly tune in  to see how long it will take for the contestants  to freak out within the constraints of  a sealed, underground coffin.

On Halloween Eve, Destination America  follows suit with the first-ever live telecast  of an exorcism when it goes to the  house that inspired the 1970s horror film The Exorcist  to investigate paranormal activity.Exorcism: Live even  brings an interactive element: Viewers can access multiple  live camera feeds set up around the house online at

While these shows aren’t expected to generate the  20 million to 30 million viewers that some live cable news  and sports events have already done this year, the specials  will shed some light on whether the mix of live and entertainment  programming can generate big audiences. 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.