In the early days of television, everything was live—no second takes, no post-processing and no edits to bleep out the occasional old-timey cuss. Back then, performers were accustomed to this sort of environment from working on the stage much of their careers, so more often than not “bloopers” were limited to Jackie Gleason accidentally knocking over a table or Milton Berle unexpectedly biting the head off a live pheasant. Now that live television events are much more rare (and are major TV occasions because of that rarity), it’s far more likely for actors to stammer, stumble, or drop the occasional f-bomb. TV news, on the other hand, has used live broadcasts as an essential part of its appeal for years, but with cameras everywhere desperate to capture each moment of an event, sometimes shocking things slip onto broadcasts before the editors can cut away. Here are some of the most shocking and memorable live televised scandals of yesterday and today.
Sometimes the least predictable element of a live broadcast is the people you have on camera. Live TV gaffes run the gamut from mildly uncomfortable, such as the time Kathie Lee Gifford asked Martin Short about his (dead) wife; to the gawping did-he-just-say-that moments that occur whenever Kanye West is allowed on live television. From his memorable declaration that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people to his immediately viral MTV Video Music Awards appearance, Kanye West may be the craziest person to regularly appear on live TV of all time—of all time!
Curses—sometimes even the tamer PG-13 curses heard on taped dramas and comedies—often provoke a barrage of letters from puritanical shut-ins who are enraged to hear (gasp) dirty words on the TV box, but more often than not even the most apparently deliberate use of foul language (even Fox WNYW anchor Ernie Anastos’ infamous recommendation to “keep f—kin’ that chicken”) can be explained away as slips of the tongue or quirks of the recording equipment. When there’s no logical explanation for dropping an f-bomb, however, things can get pricey: a post-game interview with an exhausted and angry Shaquille O’Neal where he asked that referees “don’t try to take over the f—kin’ game” (to which the reporter said “Shaq, we’re on live…” prompting the Diesel to reply “I don’t give a s—t”) cost the athlete/rapper/genie/Shaq-Fu nearly $300,000 and a one-game suspension. More destructive and more widely known was the f-bomb that nearly killed "Saturday Night Live" at the end of its already disastrously unfunny sixth season. After a tiresome sketch referencing the “Who Shot JR” plotline of "Dallas," unpleasantly smug leading man Charles Rocket loudly stated that he would like to know who the F—K just shot him. SNL was gone for a month, during which time almost the entire acting and writing staff was fired.
Oh, those pesky boobs! Ever since Justin Timberlake “accidentally” ripped open Janet Jackson’s shirt at Super Bowl XXXVIII, the term “wardrobe malfunction” has been used to describe the consequences of risqué fashion, lack of bras, and failure to use breast-securing tape. While such malfunctions are fairly common (they were more often known as “nip slips” in the press), what happened to contestant Yolanda Bowersley on semi-live game show "The Price Is Right" in 1977 could more accurately be described as a catastrophic tube-top failure. As she sprinted down the stairs to meet Bob Barker, her top worked its way down to mid-chest-level without her realizing. Frantic studio assistants soon notified her of the malfunction, which she quickly rectified.
I think if we’re all honest with ourselves we can admit that nobody actually enjoys watching an awards show. Lame jokes? Boring sketches? Some horrible faux-broadway musical number only the host could conceivably enjoy? Much better to have the routine broken up by the occasional naked or nearly-naked person sprinting around evading security guards, like during the 1974 46th Academy Awards when photographer Robert Opel streaked behind actor David Niven at the podium brandishing a peace sign and leading Niven (a former British Commando and not a man who was easily rattled) to quip, “Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” In later years, evidence came to light to show that the stunt may have been at least partially facilitated by the show’s producers, and Niven given advance warning that something odd might happen, but that didn’t stop the incident from being voted one of the Oscars’ most memorable spectacles in 2001.
Death on live camera is never planned (although we’ll soon see that the nature of live news coverage often makes it hard to avoid) but sometimes accidents happen—and not just the sort of accident you see on the news when a suspect's car somersaults flaming into a ditch and you’re left with the icky feeling that you’ve just seen somebody die at that very moment. Sudden, unexpected death is no stranger to live performances, from musicians being electrocuted by their instruments to the fatal fall of Owen Hart during a pay-per-view wrestling event that was almost caught on live cameras. In a way, it’s sheer luck that the only clear-cut case of death on camera during a live entertainment was that of renowned British comedian Tommy Cooper during a performance of "Live From Your Majesty’s," where shortly after the farcical comic donned his magician’s robes, he collapsed to the floor. Unfortunately, Cooper’s big gimmick was of a magician whose tricks and props always went wrong, so the audience (and even his assistant) initially assumed this was part of a joke. When it became clear to the producer that this was definitely not a joke, he called an emergency commercial break to haul the comedian backstage and attempt to revive him. Bizarrely, the show went on after the break, and while the legend that you could see Cooper’s shoes sticking out from under the curtain during the next act is plainly false, it is true that efforts to resuscitate him were hindered by working in the darkness behind the curtain as for some reason the house lights could not be turned up. EMTs removed his body during the second commercial break, and the comedian was pronounced DOA at Westminster Hospital.
After the infamous suicide of Pennsylvania treasurer R. Budd Dwyer (an event that spawned books, documentaries, and the 1995 Filter song “Hey Man, Nice Shot”) you would think that camera crews and producers would be set to instantly cut the feed the moment a stressed-out desperate person pulls out a gun. Sadly, the hopes that this situation will turn into an exciting and Nielsen-friendly gun battle typically overrules the likelihood that a human being will blow his or her brains out in front of everyone watching. On April 30, 1998, HIV and cancer sufferer Daniel V. Jones lead the LAPD on a high-speed chase covered by live helicopter TV feeds that lasted until 3:30 pm, pre-empting many stations’ after-school children’s cartoons. That meant that kids and parents alike were able to watch Jones set fire to his truck and dog, spread out a banner protesting HMOs’ treatments of patients like him, and kill himself with a shotgun. While the outcry was great, it didn’t prevent the same thing from happening in 2012 on FOX News "Studio B with Shepard Smith," where fugitive carjacker Jordon F. Romero shot himself in the head before either the cable network or the local affiliate could cut the feed.
ASSASSINATIONS (ATTEMPTED AND OTHERWISE)
You may be familiar with the recent attempted assassination of Bulgarian politician Ahmed Dogan—during a party congress, a man ran up to Dogan and pointed a pistol point-blank at his head, only to misfire before a mob of attendants and bodyguards piled on to kick the crap out of the would-be killer. Many have suggested that the assassination was actually staged—supposedly the gas-driven pistol that the attacker carried would have only been able to wound Dogan—but the same can’t be said for the very first recorded assassination, the fatal stabbing of Japanese politician Inejiro Asanuma in October 1960. Asanuma, a popular but controversial far-left leader of the Japan Socialist Party, was preparing to enter into a debate at Tokyo’s Hibiya Hall when 17-year-old extremist Otoya Yamaguchi charged the stage with a wakizashi, running the samurai sword through Asanuma’s abdomen and almost immediately killing him. Millions of Japanese citizens were watching at the time, and despite mass demonstrations for peace and order memorializing the slain politician, the Japan Socialist Party soon effectively disintegrated.
STANDOFFS AND SHOOTOUTS
Producers all know that when the SWAT teams come out the news crews better be set up beforehand, because everyone wants to see a good guns-blazin’ shootout or even a tense (albeit less exciting) siege. At times this pays off enormously, such as the infamous North Hollywood Shootout of February 1997 where two men with illegally modified full-auto rifles held off most of the LAPD and SWAT for almost an hour. Other times things go wrong—badly wrong in the case of siege of Waco, where FBI and ATF forces either deliberately set fire to the compound of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult or botched a tear-gas attack enough to achieve the same result. The end result was 76 cult members dead, including children and unarmed civilians. The graphic footage of the inferno, combined with similar coverage of the tragic Ruby Ridge standoff, is said to have inspired Timothy McVeigh’s lethal Oklahoma City bombing.
ACCIDENTS AND EXPLOSIONS
In most cases of traumatic or explosive accidents, the only footage we get are from security cams or hastily-aimed cellphones. Only in a few instances have disasters been caught on professional film. Most shocking would have to be the breakup and explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, particularly since the well-publicized inclusion of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe meant that the live broadcast was shown in schools across the country as well as regular news stations. On the other end of the tragedy spectrum would be the strangely postmodern coverage of JetBlue Flight 292, a minor aircraft landing accident that the airplane’s passengers were actually able to watch live on their seat-back TV screens due to JetBlue’s DirecTV satellite feed. Shortly after taking off, the crew of the Airbus A320 detected that their nose gear had failed to retract correctly; reports from the ground indicated that it was stuck down but twisted 90 degrees the wrong way. The pilots were able to bring the plane down for a safe albeit sparky landing, although the TV feed to the passengers was cut off earlier to prevent panic and to make the situation less absurdly meta.
Next: 10 Stories Behind Popular Corporate Logos
Global news organizations typically rush everything they can to the site of an incipient natural disaster in an attempt to capture the scope and power of a catastrophe that can be hard to convey in words. As a result, the great hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods of the last 20 years have been extensively captured on film, often as it happened. One disaster, however, is so hard to predict and quick to occur that it has only been filmed “in process” once—the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, most famously captured on ABC live television as it interrupted warm-up for Game 3 of the World Series. Sportscaster Tim McCarver was narrating some highlights from previous games when the feed began breaking up. McCarver uncertainly repeated his last sentence before co-anchor Al Michaels famously exclaimed “I’ll tell you what—we’re having an earth—“ before the feed cut out entirely, quickly replaced by the ABC Sports default graphic. Eventually audio was switched over to an eerie, grainy telephone link with the shouts and screams of confused fans at Candlestick Park, and McCarver quipping “Well, that’s the greatest opening in the history of television, bar none!” The game obviously being canceled, McCarver filled in as a reporter on the ground as ABC cameras aboard the Goodyear Blimp began to record the first images of the damaged Bay Bridge and San Francisco cityscape. One happy side effect of the World Series: many people had left work early or stayed late to watch the game with friends, and as a result far fewer people were driving on the collapsing bridges and freeways.