On TV And In Movies, All TV Shows Are Live

I didn’t mention this in my piece on Slumdog Millionaire, and I’m glad I didn’t because I don’t really think this one is a problem, but one of the classic clichés it used was the idea that all television shows are broadcast live. In this universe, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire is on the air live, so when someone calls in, someone else can be watching the show and hearing her call in at that precise moment. Most versions of Millionaire are pre-taped — they have to be, because if the show is done live, it makes the phone-a-friend option too easy. (If the friend is watching at home, he or she might have time to look up the answer before the call comes in.) As I said, this is not one of the things that bothers me about the movie, because it was necessary for the plot that the show be broadcast live, and it’s not the sort of thing that you question until after the movie is over.

But it is one of my favourite movie and TV clichés: everything is live. All the time. When somebody goes on a news show, a game show, even a scripted show, they’re always broadcasting live, because the plot calls for the hero to be embarrassed on television, and so you have to remove the option of editing that part out before the broadcast. (Sometimes they’ll even work that in: Homer Simpson: Can you edit that part out? Kent Brockman: Mr. Simpson, we’re on the air live. Homer Simpson: D’oh!) Occasionally the writers will try to come up with a plausible reason why the show would be broadcast live, like in the movie Tootsie, where we learn that a major scene has to be done live because a technician accidentally destroyed the master tape. This allows Dustin Hoffman to make his big dramatic revelation on nationally broadcast live TV. But usually it’s not necessary, because, again, this is not something that we’ll question, and it’s not something that reflects on character or motivation; it’s just fooling around with reality for the sake of plot mechanics, and that’s fine.

I think I first became aware of this cliché when watching the episode of Night Court where Dan humiliates himself by running onto the set of a game show and telling Bull “I want to be your love slave!” (I don’t feel that it’s necessary to explain how the story got to that point.) The host says “We’re on the air live, you pervert!” I wondered: Hey, why are they on the air live when game shows are usually pre-taped? Then I realized that the answer was: Because. And I stopped worrying about stuff like that.