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In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when live television dramas were generally abandoned in favor of pre-taped series with recurring characters (which enabled the easier re-use of sets and actors), a large crop of talented television directors moved to the freedom of film.

With them, they brought an artistic philosophy based on subversion and improvisation. This had been developed during their hectic TV careers, in which they essentially had to create entire feature films, live, with a week to prepare.

Arthur Penn (1922 - )started out directing episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse, The Goodyear Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90. In 1958 he had his film debut with The Left Handed Gun. From there, his career highlights have included The Miracle Worker (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Night Moves (1975).

John Cassavetes (1929 - 1989), who is often better known as an actor, got his start directing with TV's Staccato. He went on to helm such features as Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980).

One of the better known, and more aggressively visual, of these directors is John Frankenheimer (1930 -2002). He cut his teeth directing episodes of Danger, Climax! and Playhouse 90. From there he went on to The Ninth Day, The Young Stranger, The Comedian, The Browning Version and The Turn of the Screw –– all live TV productions. After his feature debut, The Young Savages (1961), he worked almost constantly until his death. His films include Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Grand Prix (1966), Seconds (1966), Black Sunday (1977), Prophecy: The Monster Movie (1979) and Ronin (1988).

It was filmmakers like these who saved film from certain death beneath the wheels of television. They introduced darkness, ambiguity (both moral and narrative) and overtly political content –– elements that had previously been lacking in both television and film.

Live television isn't. Not in the United States, anyway.

Almost any television program said to be live is actually working under a seven second delay - this allows the television stations a bit of breathing room to comply with FCC obscenity and broadcast rules so that, for example, a screaming FUCK can be effectively bleeped over before anyone actually hears it.

The two exceptions to this rule were Saturday Night Live and major sporting events, which were broadcast without any delay whatsoever. This has gotten the networks into trouble before - Sinead O'Connor's desecration of a photograph of the pope on Saturday Night Live almost cost them their totally live status, and Ashley Simpson's lip syncing screw up this past October was embarrassing, but extremely funny. After Janet Jackson's naked breast became the focus of national scrutiny, petitions were put forward to add a delay to sporting events as well. This didn't hold water with fans or the network and the proposal quietly disappeared.

Live Television did, in fact, exist in the mid-1990's. I have directed such television. Real, actual live television without any 7-second delay... when I was a volunteer at my local PBS station. A highly-recommended experience.

Because it was PBS, we worked without a lot of overhead. The flow of information was:

  1. The talent and his/her microphone,
  2. The cameras and floor director in the studio,
  3. Me on the video switcher (alone with the audio guy in the production control room)
  4. The guy minding the 1.5 million watt transmitter in Master Control
  5. The tower.

The Manual Controls

Small potatoes, perhaps, compared to the machinations of our national monoculture, but no less of a thrilling experience for having an audience of several hundred thousand old ladies and college professors.

The thing is, it didn't matter who was watching, because I felt that I alone had been entrusted with some degree of power, focused down to the tip of my index finger as I would press buttons on the Ampex production switcher and and make different images from the studio, tape machines, and the still store appear on television screens in (potentially) a million living rooms.

It was the archetypal science fiction scene: A giant, powerful spaceship that flies itself most of the time, but... in a place of honor on the bridge, under lock and key, are the "manual controls". Some very significant flight stick or cluster of buttons which represents a pulsing, hot-wired pathway to directly sieze the visceral, untamed nuclear hellfire housed in the lead-lined recesses of the engineering section. These controls, frowned upon by the engineers as a seat-of-the-pants vestigal appendage, are taken up with gravitas in desperate situations by our steely-eyed hero. The crew and passengers look onward, realizing their very existence is no longer in the care of cold, precision technology but the simple application of raw power under the influence of an imperfect animal instinct.

Now, imagine the controls are a video switcher, and the power you are directing is a UHF transmitter, and you're pretty much there.

It's possible that I'm turning into an old fart.

In case it isn't obvious, I will add a disclaimer that the memories and feelings I draw from when I think about my experience in broadcasting come from a time which is not the present. It's possible that, with the advent of digital broadcasting, the days when it was possible for four people to run a television station during a live broadcast are over. But, the ideal of free expression in the name of betterment of the local community remains... and I tend to believe that things which were easier in the past should not become harder in the future.

It bothers me that we can talk about television and say there is no such thing as "live" anymore, simply because the majority of material we see on our screens comes in over a satellite from New York or Los Angeles. This would seem to be a form of brainwashing where we (as individual people who live in our own communities, with our own circle of friends) are divorced from the idea that we have as much right to do what we want with electronic media as any Network or Studio does. Not everything must exist solely as a profit center. Not everything should exist solely as a profit center.

New technology for television is engineered to reinforce the idea that you and your locality are insignificant, beyond your power to consume what you are ordered to. Concepts such as "Signal Theft" and the "Broadcast Flag" have been woven into our language and spun to convince people that they are acceptable.

For me, I have begun to hoard the gear which I so enjoyed using when I was sitting at the control board in 1994. Analog gear, semi-professional stuff... Video Toasters, Media 100 systems, Betacam SP Decks, BNC cables. It seems the only way that, if I care to again experience the freedom and sense of power I once did, I will be able to make it possible.

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