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Living In the Moment — Literally

From breathtaking police car chases to hungry lionesses hunting down prey, A&E and Nat Geo Wild are offering viewers the opportunity to watch traditionally taped reality and documentary content live as it happens.

Shows such as A&E’s police-themed series Live PD, along with Nat Geo Wild’s Safari Live, are looking to boost the emotional and adrenaline-driving appeal of reality TV by going live, adding the unpredictability factor to already compelling subjects.

“It’s strangely addictive,” Nat Geo Wild executive vice president and general manager Geoff Daniels said of Safari Live. “It’s not like it’s a classically formatted reality series or documentary — it has a real-time, off-the-cuff feel where you really never know what’s going to happen.”

So far, live reality shows are drawing viewers. Nat Geo Wild’s seven-week three-hour live late-night series Safari Live — which followed in real time wildlife action surrounding the annual wildebeest migration within Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park — drew an average of 160,000 viewers, matching the network’s average primetime viewership during the third quarter, according to Nielsen.

Inventing a New Genre

A&E’s Live PD, which launched its second season this past Friday (Oct. 6), averaged 1.6 million viewers on a Nielsen live-plus-7 basis during its first season, making it the top real-life, unscripted crime series year-to-date, according to A&E officials. The series recently received a 100-episode order from A&E, which will keep it on the air through next summer.

Dan Cesareo, president of Big Fish Entertainment — which produces Live PD — said the show’s concept of monitoring the actions of several police forces in various cities in real time over a three-hour period has drawn both fans of the true crime reality drama and viewers looking for live, unfiltered programming.

“We were trying to invent a new genre,” he said. “You have live events, you have law-enforcement shows, but no one is really doing a show in this way.”

Cesareo said the advancement of cellular technology has allowed the company to showcase multiple live feeds across the country without the costly rollout of satellite trucks and traditional cameras.

“We’re transmitting the show 100% over cellular technology,” he said. “We could not have done this show two years ago — the technology was not there — but now we’re doing the show without satellite trucks.”

Nat Geo Wild’s Daniels said the network’s ability to secure multiple cameras on already embedded vehicles within the park has helped alleviate the high costs related to producing live content. On the flip side, the airing of live feeds carries inherent risks from an editorial standpoint.

“Truly being unscripted and the fact that we can have technical glitches and gremlins is risky,” he said. “Also, having multiple locations and being able to coordinate with the local network on the ground can be difficult, but part of the fun of doing live is that risk for us and for the viewer as well.”

Cesareo said Big Fish has built-in safeguards so that overly violent or controversial content from either Live PD or its dating-themed show Date Night Live doesn’t repel viewers or advertisers. Still, he said Live PD has remained compelling for viewers and consistently generates heavy social media feedback both for and against actions taken by the officers in specific incidents.

“It’s not for us to decide how people should feel about law enforcement,” he said. “It’s a really complicated, hot-button issue in the country, so I think our approach is to show what’s happening completely unfiltered and unedited from the start of a call to the end of a call. From there it’s up to the viewer to decide how they feel about the officers and the incident.”

Going Back On ‘Safari’

Nat Geo Wild, meanwhile, plans to bring back Safari Live to the channel sometime in January with a six- to 10-week run, according to Daniels. While most of that coverage will originate from South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Daniels said the network would also be able to again go live to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park as the action dictates.

In the meantime, the network and media company WildEarth are currently offering twice-daily, two-hour live webcasts from both parks via as well as on Facebook Watch, according to Daniels.

“Our operating concept is to bring you the African content with all the different animals and variety,” he said. “We’ll be able to deliver that in a seamless experience for our audiences on-air and online.”