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 DestinationAmerica.com/ExorcismLive.
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.
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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.