The Continuously Transformative Moment of Live Television

Live net broadcasting live from the underground studio bunker in Washington, DC.

Television’s most salient quality since its inception has been the socially-simultaneous experience of the live broadcast. When television is live it is synchronous, it is a #hashtag of social aggregation, a place of congregation in the shared moment. Think about the 1969 moon landing, when for the first time, much of the planet was riveted, watching Neil Armstrong’s shadowy figure glide out of the Apollo 11 space capsule to take mankind’s first step on the moon. What a transformative moment, 600 million viewers from around the world in a multiplicity of time zones, watching together at the same time. And despite the latency, the glitches, the crackly audio, the low resolution transmission, it was, nevertheless, an epic moment of simultaneity as it happened: because it was… simply… live.

Today we have become asynchronous, albeit at the speed of light. We prefer the convenience of video-on-demand, record it on your DVR, watch it when you want, never miss a thing. We prefer text messaging to real-time telephone, again, because the convenience of taking your time to formulate a response, or not respond at all, or use the delay to do something else, to multi-task, to be all places at once, to distribute yourself anywhere and everywhere without committing to a specific time and place. But this type of exchange is not live, it may be fast, but it’s not real-time, it’s asynchronously out-of-sync, it’s not together in the moment.

To be together in the immediacy and simultaneously of the live broadcast is an increasingly rare, wondrous thing. It requires effort and total commitment, it requires complicated specificity of space and time, but there is a big reward: that is, being in a shared temporal zone with others, and the intimacy of this immediacy is irreplacable, it is distinctly human, and it is necessary to our social being.

This is precisely why television is so important. Because when it is live, it is one of those rare moments that we are doing something precisely at the same time as other people. However, there is one problematic caveat to television simultaneity. We may be doing at the same time, but we are not doing it with others. In other words, television is inherently a one-way medium, a transmission from a centralized broadcast facility to your television. For the social experience to be actively relational, what I refer to as social broadcasting, there must be the means for engagement between viewers across the boundaries of the communications space.

Back to the moon landing: we shared that historic experience with our families and friends who were watching together in the congregational space of the family room. However the exchange between remote viewers did not happen until later, once we left home and were at work or at school or the local bar, thus defining a shared or third space to socially open up lines of communication with others. Despite the fact that we experienced the simultaneity of the shared, global broadcast of the moon landing, we were not able to synchronously transcend distance and geography to communicate directly with viewers outside our local proximity. One exception: if you combined other real-time media such as the telephone in order to create a many-to-many bridge to the remote, this was the only way to expand the social space of the live television transmission.

In recent years, mainstream broadcast media have attempted, somewhat, to transcend the one-way nature of the live transmission through the integration of social media with television. Using Facebook or Twitter, they awkwardly extend the communication space from the one-to-many by throwing Tweets up on the screen. Television has yet to truly advance into a hybrid medium that can break the constraints of the centralized, one-way broadcast. And why should they? It is not in the interests of corporate television to yield control to the viewer, unless of course there is money to be made.

Yet for the past ten years, we have seen the rapid emergence of Internet television, streaming platforms that place television, again with considerable corporate control, into the hands of citizen-broadcasters, artist-broadcasters, anyone who wants to live broadcast their own media. These platforms have proliferated exponentially, beginning with Livestream, UStream, and YouTube, then expanding into social media itself with Twitter Periscope, Facebook Live, and Instagram (and a host of others).

Video dissemination is potentially becoming more social in the synchronicity and aggregation of the live broadcast. People are becoming their own TV broadcasters, they are making their own brand of television, deciding how they might want to alter and transform the medium. It is becoming possible, and affordable, to redefine the medium of television – not as passive recipients of programming offered up by the corporate broadcast media giants, with their hypnotically seductive advertising, endlessly repeating logos, and hyper-manufactured content – but with newly gained CONTROL over the live broadcast.

Pick up your cell phone and you are a walking broadcaster, citizen journalist, and live performance artist transmitting to an audience that extends to the whole world. Not to exonerate the corporate powers that govern our social media, take our data, surveil our every move, manipulate our social interactions, but if you can consider it a tradeoff, you are also being handed the tools to create your own broadcast and distribute it instantaneously, socially, anywhere, anytime.

Anything is possible in the immediacy and simultaneity of the live transmission, that is if you seize the moment.