Saturday, November 7, 2009

Live Music on Television

Broadcast television is in a tenuous place, with more people turning to their computers and the internet for their on-screen entertainment needs. But there's no question that it still holds a commanding role in our cultural landscape, not so much by setting agendas as by ramming previously tenuous ones down our collective throats. TV has become widely dispersed and specialized. There's a food channel, a travel channel, a golf channel, "women's" channels, Black Entertainment Television, etc. etc. There are music channels of course, and MTV can be seen as the granddaddy of this specialization, but there's not actually a whole lot of music there anymore, and almost no live music.

Live music performance can be found on television, of course, regularly on the late night talk shows, which more recently do seem to have expanded their traditionally narrow scope as the major label stranglehold has loosened here, like so many other places. Just last week there was our old friend Andrew Bird, surrounded by those hometown boys Martin Dosh, Michael Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker with a great performance on yet another network talk show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:

There's also the venerable Austin City Limits for something closer to a full set by a wide range of hipster bands.

However, considering the impact live music seems to be having on the entertainment industry in general these days (just look at how much of an appetite for even poor quality amateur live music clips on YouTube there apparently seems to be), there is a real lack of imagination on the part of television broadcasters to bring this into their programming strategies. You would think that these folks would be motivated... they are pretty much all international entertainment conglomerates with music divisions anyway.

It does not take much to appreciate the impact a special live music event can have on a broadcast. The Ed Sullivan Show was a square, often tedious weekly variety show, but electrifying performances by Elvis Presley and The Beatles on that show are still considered important cultural landmarks.

And few would argue that this television moment in 1983 forever changed modern dance, while catapulting its performer to unprecedented international super-stardom:

But live music performance does not have to be structured as a traditional television variety show to make an impact. One of my favorite live music performance television moments came on Sesame Street, of all places, back when Jim Henson's creative genius was behind everything...

Unfortunately, it's just hard to imagine any television program turning over nearly seven minutes of airtime in this day and age for a creative jam by one of the world's most creative musicians. Yet it's just as compelling to watch this clip today as it was some 35+ years ago.

Why are there not more moments like this on mainstream television now?


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