Live Matters: On Bill Simmons and TV In 2016

Last night I watched two stations simultaneously — the debut of Bill Simmons’s new weekly HBO sports show and the Democrat protest/sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. It was fascinating to see them airing head-to-head because one, the Bill Simmons show, was taking place on a well-designed set in a beautiful studio replete with all the gadgets and graphics of modern television. And the other was a shaky iPhone on Periscope showing the actions — on the full CNN screen — from the floor of the House of Representatives.

And the Periscope show was a billion times more interesting and entertaining than the HBO show.

Now you can argue that was because the stakes were more important in the House of Representatives and because the conflict was more natural and organic, but I think something else was at stake — the Periscope feed was live and Bill Simmons’s show was pre-recorded. 

At that exact moment I leaned over and wrote down these two words on my notepad. 

LIVE MATTERS.

We already know this with sports — it’s why live games are virtually DVR proof. Once you know what happens very few people go back and watch a game. 98% of all sports viewing is done live.

Increasingly, live TV news has gotten smart about this too, they find the three or four stories that people most care about and they give them to you again and again. The search for that lost plane on CNN? A terror attack? Black lives matter protests? Protesters both for and against Donald Trump in conflict on live TV?

I dare you to change the station. 

To heck with everything else, we’re going to flood the zone with the stories that provoke a reaction and compel viewers to stay in front of their televisions. If a kid gets attacked by an alligator at Disney World or falls in a cage with a gorilla, we ain’t leaving until we find out what happened to him.  

And almost all of that, sports and otherwise, is live. 

In fact, if your show is not going to be live it better be an incredible “Game of Thrones” like spectacle. And even then people aren’t watching those shows live. While I have to watch “Game of Thrones” live because I love the show and am afraid of getting an episode spoiled, nearly 16 million of the 23 million who watch “Game of Thrones” every week aren’t even watching that live.

Now you can say this is self-serving since I do a daily live Periscope and Facebook show, but I’ve also done a ton of live radio and live TV over the past six or seven years and I always prefer live media unless I’m watching a great scripted drama or comedy. And even then the first time a show airs is the equivalent of a live broadcast. I treat “Game of Thrones” just like a game, if I miss it live I’m terrified of what might happen. (I’m going to a wedding Sunday night and I negotiated with my wife until she agreed to let me leave the wedding and watch the show. It’s my job, after all.)

If I miss Simmons’s show live I can watch it whenever I want to watch it, but we’re all busy, how much time do you have to watch shows that aren’t scripted on DVR? How many shows that you never watch are piled up on your DVR? What’s more, what’s the shelf life for a show like Simmons’s? I can put on “Game of Thrones” for my oldest son eight years from now and he’ll love it just as much as I did the first time I saw it. Will any of Simmons’s shows make sense to watch a month from now?

I think about these things all the time with my own Periscope show, the downside of going live in the moment is there’s always another moment coming, a next biggest thing — it can be exhausting to react to everything that matters when so much matters, but only for 24 hours or so. The same is true of written content now as well. I’ve written two books and people send me pictures of them reading those books all the time. The books are nearly a decade old now, but they retain their worth. I see the analytics on my site, virtually no one reads old columns. That’s because there’s always something new to see. 

In fact, 95% of you will have read this column by Saturday. Then this will give up the Internet ghost too. 

Let’s circle back to Periscope, which along with Facebook Live I’m incredibly bullish about, if something happens on the House of Representatives floor, it’s live on video, there’s no telling what I’ll miss if I flip away. Think about what a new era this is, we had CNN, which spends tens of billions on television and satellite technology, putting a Periscope broadcast on their full screen. And I guarantee you the ratings were incredible. 

As I watched the edited, pre-recorded Ben Affleck video and contrasted it with Periscope, I found myself thinking — “What if this were all airing live on Periscope or Facebook?”

The full clip, which you can see below, is just under five minutes long. That’s fine, but I wanted more. 

I found myself asking — what if Simmons had just set up a tripod and an iPhone in his house and he and Ben Affleck were sitting side by side and you had no idea what they might say during the interview? Wouldn’t you feel like you were getting a special treat if Affleck just went off on Roger Goodell live and you were watching and had no idea it was coming? You’d feel like you were witnessing a unique live event, something programmed just for you, a moment and an experience that you couldn’t replace.  

Moreover, instead of a five minute edit, we’d have the entire interview. How long did they talk, what else was said? Sure, Simmons may well turn the full interview into a podcast, but wouldn’t you have preferred to be able to see it all happen live to see everyone’s face throughout to see the rough cuts to see the questions and answers that weren’t worth putting on the show? The same is true of Charles Barkley, the man who might be the best practioner of live television in sports today. I see him live 50 nights or so a year, why do I need to see him recorded for an edited interview?

Look, live TV is hard, there’s a reason people who are good at it get paid millions of dollars a year. What’s hard about TV is it’s naturally inauthentic yet the goal is to be authentic. You put on make-up, you get dressed up, you emote, you react, you wear a lobster costume or a wedding dress — live TV is performance art delivered to people sitting on their couches at home. You’re the court jester who shows up to make the king and queen of the household’s day better or smarter or funnier or dumber than it already was. Your goal on live TV is to entertain and engage the viewer better than every other entertainment option they might choose otherwise.

And right now there has never been more competition.

We’re moving towards an era — if we aren’t already there — where every single person in America will be able to pull every single show that ever existed and watch it. You’ll sit down in the car and say, I hope, “Give me Clay Travis.” Or Bill Simmons or Howard Stern or whomever your favorite person to spend time with is. 

And that’s all well and good, but what’s the only thing that can compete with the archived network of all that’s ever been created?

It’s live, stupid. 

It used to be that after a game ended on Saturday, people would Tweet me and say, “I can’t wait to hear what you’re going to say about this on Monday.” On Monday?! That’s 48 hours away. Now I go live immediately. Sure, everyone can’t see that show live, but the ones who can, absolutely love it. And the ones who can’t can stream the show whenver they want — cleverly edited to show the comments in real time to make it look live — or download the podcast and listen to it whenever they want.  

Bill Simmons’s show may well turn out to be a success, but it’s pre-recorded on tape. I think that’s a mistake. The rationale behind that is simple, it’s easier to spend four hours getting thirty minutes of good footage than it is to just roll the cameras for thirty minutes straight and risk that you might not get very good footage. But the problem with that is, the show better be great every week and you better be an incredible TV performer — John Oliver style. You better read a teleprompter better than 99.99999% of people can read a teleprompter. (Believe me there’s an art to it.) That’s not Simmons. It’s not most sportswriters. The words matter less than the delivery of the words. 

What surprised me the most about live TV when I first started doing it was how much of it was scripted — you talk then you talk then you talk — and then we go to a break. Then when we come out of a break you look at this camera and then you talk and you talk and you talk in that order. And you’re going to say this and I’m going to say this and before long you’ve got mini-play breaking out on television.

TV’s the opposite of live radio, which if it’s done well, is virtually impossible to script. That’s why Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh make as much money as they do, because their talent is so rare. That’s why I loved taking live radio calls. You have no idea what someone might say. The show can shift directions at any moment, news can break and what you had planned can make no sense. Live radio is like riding a tiger, live TV is like petting a cat. 

But with Periscope and Facebook live you get the immediate reactions from commenters with the immediacy of a live radio show and the video, albeit not as polished, of TV. 

It’s the best of both worlds, it’s live and it’s the future.

Podcasts are great, but they’ve already been leaped by technology. If you’re smart about media today, you need to add Periscope and Facebook Live to your list of TV and radio networks.

TV everywhere has been a popular buzzword for the past several years, but I think that’s a bit off, it isn’t just TV everywhere, it’s everything is TV. How else can you explain a live Periscope feed filling the entire live CNN screen last night? 

Periscope and Facebook are the future, I’m positively sure of it. 

And they offer what everyone desperately craves — authenticity. 

Live. 

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.