The Perils of Live TV

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One of the biggest misconceptions about live television is that it’s actually live. Let me tell you a secret: nothing is live. Everything has a built-in delay, just in case something unexpected happens. It’s not so much out of concern for the viewers, but for the advertisers. The last thing Pampers wants to deal with is some British actor saying “cunt” on a talk show or an NFL quarterback getting paralyzed after a big hit. It’s bad for the brand.

I work for the Food Network. Over the last ten years, we’ve moved from basic cooking instruction to a more “reality TV” style; lots of competitions, celebrity cameos, that whole thing. Lots of people didn’t like the change, but we got a big uptick in the younger demographics as a result.

One of the problems with capturing a younger demographic is holding onto them as they transition into an older one. Let’s say, for example, when we started with the reality TV shows, we got a viewer named Jenny. Jenny was 22 when she first saw Ace of Cakes and became a regular viewer of the network since then. She was fresh out of college, had few responsibilities, and was enjoying being a kid.

Fast-forward nine years. Jenny’s 31 and a stay-at-home mom. Her priorities are far different than they were when she was 22. She has two children, and, on weekdays, she babysits her brother’s twins as well. Instead of eating out all the time like she did at 22, Jenny’s responsible for feeding a household. She doesn’t have time for reality shows anymore and she wishes her cable company offered the Cooking Channel – the sister station to the Food Network that offers more how-to programming.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jennys across the country – first generation captures from the reality-TV era who yearn for more instructional programming. But it’s a balancing act. If the Food Network goes back to their original format, they lose the potential for new, younger viewers. If they stay with primarily reality-based programming, they lose all the Jennys out there.

Our goal, and by “our,” I mean: me and my team at the network, was to create a show to bridge that gap. After the success of The Kitchen, a Saturday morning program featuring four of the network’s biggest stars as they cook exciting recipes and give tips and techniques, we were tasked to make something for the weekday morning viewers.

We ended up creating a show that featured two of the network’s top chefs, a live studio audience, and Q&A from online viewers. It was going to be as interactive a show as we’d ever made, and the twist was, it would be “live.” Now, remember what I said about “live” TV. Sure, the audience would be there watching the chefs cook and asking them questions while they did, but the online questions would be from emails. The delay would be 30 minutes.

It was a huge success in the various test markets. We had one show to go with the stand-in chefs before the show went national, this time in Oklahoma, but there was a problem. There had been a tornado warning in the county. It had since expired, but the audience was about half of what it should’ve been. We decided to go with it anyway, since we figured a lot of the at-home audience would still be inside after the storms. They’d be watching.

Right away, there were technical issues. Even though the tornado warning had passed, there were still frequent lightning strikes and other atmospheric disturbances all around the station. Things still went on, however, and the chefs started cooking.

The first problem came when the cream wouldn’t whip. The chef made a show out of it, poking fun at the behind-the-scenes staff and trying it again with a new container of cream. Again, nothing. In my ear, one of the producers said it might have been because of the storm. He didn’t sound like he knew what he was talking about.

The chefs gave up on the whipped cream and decided to make a creme anglaise. Those require eggs. Two eggs were cracked into the mixing bowl without incident. The third, though, was bad. It was blood-red, clumpy, and smelled terrible. The odor permeated the studio quickly and I saw the audience members holding their noses. When I held my own, my fingers came back bloody. I hadn’t had a nosebleed since I was a kid. We cut to a commercial.

Neither chef was happy. They agreed to scrap the whole “dessert first” idea and just go directly to the entree. No one would complain about the basic steak-and-potatoes main course, especially in cow country. The kitchen was reset and the show resumed.

The downward spiral continued. As thunder boomed outside, loud enough to be picked up by studio microphones, the mixer for the potatoes started to smoke and emit sparks before the chef yanked the plug out of the wall and threw the whole thing in the sink. “Just goes to show you guys, disasters can happen in any kitchen,” he joked to the audience, still obviously irritated but trying to play it cool.

Potatoes got mixed and mashed by hand and the chefs fielded questions about whether or not milk or cream should be used. There was another thunderclap and the studio lights flickered. I’ve always hated working in these satellite studios – compared to the main studios in New York, these were like living in the dark ages.

The lights stayed on, thankfully, and the half-hour delay caught up to the beginning of the show. All over Oklahoma, people watching the Food Network were about to see the show for the first time.

Problems aside, the potatoes came out great. During a commercial, I had an intern get me a spoonful. I should’ve had him get me a bowl. Didn’t matter – after the broadcast, I’d be able to eat all I wanted.

The studio audience, to their credit, had taken all the technical problems in stride. I hoped the TV audience would do the same, and figured they would, as long as they didn’t turn the TV off in disgust at the sight of that egg.

The chefs moved on to the steak. Each discussed their favorite techniques; one preferring a sous-vide style followed by a blast in a hot pan, while the other advocated grilling it over hardwood charcoal. Both methods would be used and the lucky studio audience would get samples to taste and choose their favorite cooking method.

The cast-iron pan was hot and the grill, despite the powerful fans sucking away the smoke, filled the studio with the savory aroma of burning hardwood. I was starving.

Chef Bob cooked his steak first, then showed the audience the perfect edge-to-edge pinkness that only a sous-vide cooked steak can achieve. The crust on the outside was magnificent. Maillard would have been proud. Wind battered the studio walls and more thunder rolled by. The power went out.

Everyone in the studio groaned, but not as loud as the executive producer. We were in a time slot. Even with the delay, which we could shorten if we had to, there was a hard out a the top of the hour when Chopped! was scheduled to air. The last thing we wanted was to have the show just cut off entirely. If the power didn’t come back on before the delay was used up, it’d look awful. Plus, we’d have to issue refunds to the local advertisers who’d purchased that time.

We waited. And waited. And waited. We had less than a minute of delay left before the power went back on. The whole team was galvanized into action and, with only one second of delay left, we resumed filming.

For the first time in about 20 years, the broadcast was fully live. I thanked God we weren’t in front of a national audience, because if someone screwed up and said a bad word, the FCC fines we’d have to deal with would be crippling.

More thunder rumbled outside as the chef talked about how sous-vide was a nice novelty, but almost everyone, in reality, preferred a grilled steak. He seasoned as he talked, obviously comfortable with the cameras and the audience who hung on every word. The grill, which had to be refilled with more charcoal to bring it back up to temperature after the delay, was screaming hot again. The chef used his laser thermometer to take the temperature of the coals. 733 degrees. Perfect for the initial sear.

Another clap of thunder and the lights flickered again. I felt my stomach leap with panic, but the lights stayed on. We only had 11 minutes left before Chopped! came on.

With the seasoning complete and the audience dying to see the steak get cooked, the chef picked up the rib eye with his tongs and carefully placed it on the searing grill.

The other chef began to scream. Everyone, including the production crew, jumped. With expertise honed by years in television, the camera operators instinctively turned the cameras toward the screaming man. 31 studio audience members and 14,000 households across Oklahoma watched as the chef’s skin blistered and charred.

“What the fuck is going on?,” the executive producer shouted, his voice clearly audible over the screams of pain and panic. Before the cameras could pan away, the chef’s eyes burst in an explosion of boiling lachrymal fluid and blood. The skin on his nose, forehead, and cheeks bubbled and blackened.

As EMTs rushed toward the man, one of them knocked over a carton of eggs and sent the contents splattering across the floor. Behind me, with a sound I will never forget for as long as I live, Dave, the sound engineer, crumpled to the floor with his body in knots of hideously broken bones; his skull caved in and leaking brain matter onto my shoes.

The loudest thunderclap yet drowned out even the panicked shouting and screams of pain. And that was it. When all was said and done – whatever it was that had been said and done – Dave was dead. The chef was dead. The cameras had never stopped rolling. Not until Chopped! came on.

The Food Network settled lawsuits for the better part of a year. Needless to say, our show wasn’t picked up. No one could ever figure out what had happened, but the funerals I attended and the trauma endured by the audiences, both studio and remote, are proof enough that I didn’t imagine it. If you know anyone in Oklahoma who was watching the Food Network on April 11th, 2015 between 10 and 11am, ask them what they saw. They’ll tell you. I’ll bet they haven’t watched a single live broadcast of anything ever since.

And yes, the network got an FCC fine from the producer saying “fuck” on air. They were okay with the burning skin, for some reason.

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