Why NBC Is Betting Big This Fall on Live TV—and Neil Patrick Harris

Network offers real-time viewing 5 nights a week

Forty years after launching Saturday Night Live, NBC's mantra this fall seems to be Every Night Live. The network, hoping to stay No. 1 this season in adults 18-49, will try to entice audiences with live programming on five different nights: Sunday (Sunday Night Football), Monday (The Voice), Tuesday (The Voice and Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris), Friday (Undateable) and Saturday (SNL).

"Live is always potentially more exciting, and it happens to dovetail with the challenge we have to compel people to watch shows when we put them on," said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. "I think it's more compelling to the audience to come to a show that's live, and it's vital to keep trying to make the shows really appointment viewing" as viewers increasingly watch television on a delayed schedule.

While Greenblatt has had great success with live programming in recent years—Sunday Night Football and The Voice routinely top the Nielsens, while 18.6 million viewers tuned in for The Sound of Music Live! in 2013—he's never bet on the format as heavily as he is this fall. The Harris-hosted Best Time Ever, debuting Sept. 15 and based on the British show Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, is a live variety/game show offering a mix of practical jokes, celeb appearances, giveaways and much more. "We're holding a lot of cards close to our vest because that's what's going to make it fun to watch live," Harris said.

Buyers are intrigued. With Harris, "they've got a great household name behind it, and someone who has a wide attraction to a lot of audiences," said Darcy Bowe, vp, media director at Starcom."It's just exciting to have another program that's different than your traditional comedy and drama. It's good to diversify the mix of programming you can get into." Another plus: the "natural" opportunities for product integration on the show.

NBC is also airing Undateable, its only returning comedy, live all season, making it the first sitcom to tackle the format for a full year since Fox's Roc in 1992-93 (not coincidentally, Greenblatt oversaw prime-time programming at Fox that season). And The Wiz Live!, NBC's annual live musical telecast, is on tap for Dec. 3.

As "DVR-proof" live programs like sports events (especially football), competition shows (The Voice and Dancing With the Stars) and awards telecasts (The Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys) continue to draw robust audiences, the networks have desperately been searching for more live options. Last season, several of them tried to launch new televised awards shows (NBC's People Magazine Awards, CBS' Hollywood Film Awards, Fox's American Country Countdown Awards), none of which caught on with audiences. "There has to be a reason beyond just the award itself to bring viewers there," said Nina Tassler, CBS Entertainment chairman. Going forward, "just doing something live for live's sake isn't necessarily something we want to do, but if we have the property that warrants that, we would absolutely consider it."

That's why Fox has scheduled Grease: Live for Jan. 31, even though the network canceled Ryan Seacrest-hosted Knock Knock Live after just two weeks in July (where it averaged just a 0.5 rating in adults 18-49). "It's been a very successful genre of storytelling for us, with American Idol. So I still really believe in it. We're still going to take shots in the live space," said Dana Walden, co-chairman and co-CEO of Fox Television Group, who cited the lack of "circulation" on Fox's summer lineup as a main reason for Knock Knock Live's failure. "You just have to pick the right shots."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.