Why Live Shows Like Neil Patrick Harris’ ‘Best Time Ever’ Could Be TV’s Newest Hero

NBC will test the waters with Harris’ new variety show and live sitcom “Undateable,” despite Fox falling flat with “Knock Knock Live” this summer

With the fall season soon to kick off, broadcasters are betting big on an old idea — live TV.

Programmers hope that live broadcasts will inspire audiences increasingly inclined toward DVR and digital viewing to actually sit and watch a show as it airs, just like their ancestors did. But whether live TV becomes primetime’s next big trend or remains a novelty depends on how a new crop of shows fares.

“There’s more of an energy to these shows when they’re done live,” Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media, told TheWrap. “They’re always of looking for something that’s going to stand out.”

No network is looking to stand out more this fall with live programming than NBC. On Tuesday night, the network will premiere the variety show “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris.” It also has the sitcom “Undateable” relaunching as a live show on Oct. 9, and a live production of the Broadway musical “The Wiz” set for December.

Speaking to the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in August, NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt professed himself to be a “live junkie,” and added that he wants to develop a live drama in the future.

“It’s one of the tools that we have available to us to try to compel the audience to watch something when we program it, which, of course, is the great challenge we all have now,” Greenblatt told reporters, “because you can time-shift and watch shows whenever you want them. Our business really depends on people watching in a certain time period.”

Driving viewers to watch in real time is the key to live TV’s appeal. Though networks are now paid by advertisers based on the number of viewers who watch within three or even seven days of broadcast, they don’t get paid for all of those viewers — only the ones who watch the commercials. That eliminates a big chunk of DVR viewers and everyone watching on digital platforms, which are sold to advertisers in separate packages.

Viewers watching a live broadcast bring far more value to a network, because they watch more commercials than do viewers watching on time delay. But live TV also opens up other revenue streams.

For the Video Music Awards in August, MTV signed on eight marketers to a Twitter Amplify program that allowed brands such as Taco Bell, Verizon, Pepsi and Trojan to sponsor tweets during the live broadcast — the most sponsors ever for such a Twitter campaign.

Those tweets allowed West Coast viewers to watch the show’s key moments hours before they were able to watch them on MTV. And they allowed those viewers to still be monetized.

“There is more of a communal experience to watching something in real time,” Adgate said. “That can cause a lot of social media activity.” He pointed to Ellen DeGeneres‘s record-breaking selfie tweet during the 2014 Academy Awards broadcast, which was sponsored by Samsung.

But liveness alone doesn’t guarantee of success. This summer, Fox put real marketing muscle behind “Knock Knock Live,” a show that featured Ryan Seacrest and superstar guests such as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and David Beckham surprising people in their homes with prizes. It was canceled after two episodes.

Fox isn’t bolting from the live game, however. The network is staging a live musical, “Grease,” scheduled for January. That project has been in the works since 2014,  announced just months after NBC’s live production of “The Sound of Music” drew 18.5 million million viewers. (NBC’s follow-up production, “Peter Pan Live!” pulled in a less-impressive 9.1 million.)

“Fox saw the audience that ‘The Sound of Music’ did,” Adgate said. “If ‘Undateable’ or the Neal Patrick Harris show does well, there will be more of these. If they don’t, the networks will try to find something else that will click with viewers and that advertisers want to be a part of.”

So all it will take for live TV to be the next big thing is for the networks to put on shows that people want to watch. That shouldn’t be hard.