Live to Tape? Isn’t That an Oxymoron?
Normally, we think of a television program being broadcast live or recorded for playback at a later time. ‘Live to Tape’ is more of the latter.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase live to tape used in reference to the production of a TV show, you might have been confused. After all, shouldn’t it be one or the other?
In the old days — the earliest days of television — everything was broadcast “live.” Some programs, like I Love Lucy, were shot on film. That genius idea allowed for a clearer picture for the west coast audience when the program was fed to them the same night. It also allowed the program to spend generations in syndication because of the quality prints.
Videotape was created in the 1950s, but even by the early 1960s, it was still primitive enough that it wasn’t always a popular choice.
But once videotape technology improved, producers now had a new way of doing things. The good news was that videtape allowed for immediate edits to correct problems right away by simply doing a retake right over the flub.
The even better news meant that under the right circumstances, they could keep some of those mishaps in and save editing costs by recording “live to tape.” The philosophy involved recording the show but treating it as if it were a live show so that nothing stopped unless they hit a wall they couldn’t work their way around otherwise.
‘Live to tape’ combined best of both worlds
Imagine you’re the producer of a fast-paced show like The Price is Right. You want to capture the spontaneity of the moment, but you also want to allow for times when something goes wrong and you just have to stop down to fix a problem.
While Bob Barker, the show’s longtime host, was a master at rolling with the punches when things didn’t go as planned, there were occasional problems that did require the crew to stop taping.
Videotape allowed for an edit for such cases. But the rest of the time, recording “live to tape” meant that whatever happened was what the audience saw.
The most famous “blooper” from the game show wasn’t edited out. It was edited to add a bar to cover an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction, but otherwise, this is what the audience saw on September 14, 1977:
Barker initially didn’t know what happened but learned during the first commercial break that Yolanda has slipped out of her halter top as she ran to Contestant’s Row. But it was a running joke throughout the program from then on.
“Live to tape” also allowed for some funny moments that likewise would never have been seen by the home audience. Consider this “battle” between Match Game host Gene Rayburn and a cameraman:
Yes, it burned some extra program time, but it added to the madcap feel of the show and was right in character with the zaniness its audience had come to expect.
Here’s another interesting mishap from a short-lived 1976 show called The Big Showdown. Host Jim Peck didn’t quite make the most graceful of entrances:
They could easily have reshot the open and no one would ever have been the wiser. But Peck was a good sport about it and it was just a funny moment that added an extra laugh or two to the top of the show.
Here’s an example of a program that normally recorded “live to tape” but found itself with such a funny string of outtakes because of the same simple mistake that it decided to air what it otherwise would have edited out. In this clip, Tom Kennedy was tasked with disqualifying a clue given by comedian Dick Martin on Password Plus:
But game shows aren’t the only type of entertainment program in which “live to tape” has been popular over the years. Consider this clip from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in which Johnny introduces a new sponsor, but ends up getting tickled by the prop food packaging:
Out of fear of offending a brand new sponsor, they might have considered reshooting the sponsor plug. But the clip was so funny I daresay Mrs. Paul’s got more attention than the brand ever would have during a run-of-the-mill, uneventful plug.
These days, “live to tape” doesn’t seem to be as prevalent for two reasons. The first is that “tape” is no longer as prevalent. Most shows are now recorded on digital media which makes for faster editing (when necessary).
The second is that some show producers seem to think that it’s better to lose the “of the moment” quality for a more “polished” final product. I get the desire to look as perfect as possible, but sometimes, particularly when you have a really strong host who can handle such odd situations, the result can feel more honest and authentic if you leave an occasional stumble in.
Back when I visited the set of The Price is Right in October 1997, it was moving like a well-oiled machine. The show was recorded to tape segment by segment and a running time was kept by an associate director. Barker said he saved CBS millions over his 35 years at the helm by getting the show out on time without having to make lots of edits.
It took about an hour and 15 minutes to tape a one-hour show. When you’re talking about a show that was that fast-paced, that’s an impressive feat.
I’ve heard of instances of other game shows taking two and three times the length of the show’s actual episode time to stop and deal with various issues and make countless edits, only to have the show further edited in post-production.
When it’s possible, recording a program in the “live to tape” style can create a much more entertaining program because of the sheer unpredictability of what might end up on the air!