Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Live TV

Posted by Neal on March 31, 2011

My brother Glen tweeted last Friday:

Hey #Fringe fans — let’s prove FOX right by watching live tonight, okay?

Fringe wasn’t doing a gimmick like ER did back in 1997, of airing an episode that had not been prerecorded. It was a regular episode like all the others. Glen meant to watch it as it was broadcast, not hours or days later on the DVR. I was interested to see him use live in this way, because I had been noticing one of the menu options on our newly installed cable TV system: “Watch Live TV”. That option doesn’t take you to a menu of live news and sports channels; it just gets you out of your programmable recordings and puts on the screen whatever TV show is on your current channel.

I was reminded of going to the gas stations in the late 1980s, when the term regular was shifting from meaning “with lead” to meaning “unleaded”, and unleaded was fading away. But unlike leaded gasoline, what I’ve thought of as live TV isn’t going away. There will still be breaking news and sports events broadcast as they occur, so I wonder how the speakers will accommodate with the term live TV.

The adjective live meaning “alive” has been around since the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It serves a useful purpose because alive itself, like other adjectives beginning with a-, can’t go before the noun it modifies. Somewhere recently, I read a short paper arguing that such adjectives are distributionally the same as prepositional phrases, which in fact is how they arose in the first place: alive was originally on life. If you know what I’m talking about, leave a comment. And it wasn’t this paper in the current issue of Language, interesting though that is.

Alive and the adjective live are clearly related, of course. According to the OED, live arose from alive by a process called aphesis: “The gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word”.

The phrase live TV had to have appeared only after the invention of TV, and for that matter, the adjective live meaning “not recorded” must have developed only after the invention of recorded sound. The OED gives this definition, dating it to 1934:

Of a performance, event, etc.: heard or watched at the time of its occurrence; esp. (of a radio or television broadcast, etc.) not pre-recorded.
1934 B.B.C. Year-bk. 248 Listeners have … complained of the fact that recorded material was too liberally used … but … transmitting hours to the Canadian and Australasian zones are inconvenient for broadcasting ‘live’ material.

Video cassette recorders have been available since the 1970s, but even in the heyday of video rental stores, I never noticed this shift in the meaning of live. According to the current Wikipedia article, digital video recording has been around since 1999,
but even so, the earliest use of live TV that I’ve found with the meaning of “TV programs watched at the time of broadcast” is from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003:

Phone giant Sprint Corp. and a small Berkeley company today are introducing cell phone TV, a new service that brings wireless phone users live television broadcasts from networks like MSNBC, the California Music Channel and the Discovery Channel. (link)

Live TV could still have its older meaning in this example if they had mentioned just MSNBC, but I suspect that most of the programming on the California Music Channel and the Discovery Channel was pre-recorded.

As of 2010, the latest date in the Google News Archive, most examples of live TV in the first page of results has the older meaning. When I do the search on the main Google News site, about half the hits on the first page seem to have the older meaning. The success of smartphones and computers with the ability to stream and rewind video feeds seems to have pushed along the new meaning of live TV more than the existence of mere recording capability.

My prediction for the future of live with regard to TV is that we’ll have a retronym, possibly by way of contrastive reduplication: “Is this live live TV, live TV, or a recording?”

My wife and I DVR’d the Fringe episode, by the way. But at least we still watched it on Friday night!

14 Responses to “Live TV”

  1. David Craig said

    My understanding of the term regular with regard to gasoline is that it means ‘of the lowest octane rating’ and has nothing to do with the presence or absence of lead. There may have been a period during the transition from leaded only to unleaded only availability when regular referred to the variety purchased by the majority of the customers, but I think the definition I mentioned above has been the more common one.

    There’s also the term recorded live, which I’ve always taken to mean recorded during a live performance and not edited other than to take out non-musical periods such as intermissions. Primarily opposed to a studio recording where multiple takes may be spliced together in post performance editing.

    • Ellen K. said

      Yes, it means that now; but I definitely remember when I was young “regular” meant leaded. Of course, once there was no longer leaded gasoline, “regular” ceased to refer to it, since there was no need to refer to it. Or maybe even before that.

      • Ellen K. said

        That is, possibly before it disappeared altogether it became rare enough to not be called “regular” anymore.

      • David Craig said

        Well, when I was young there was no unleaded. I don’t remember the transition being all that long, but then, it’s probably just perspective. Nowadays I think the different grades of gasoline are called just by their octane numbers although some brands have special names for the different grades. Back in the long ago there was regular and there was ethyl.

  2. I definitely remember the fairly lengthy transition from leaded gas when “regular” gas was contrasted with “unleaded.” Some stations still had gas attendants who would ask “regular or unleaded?” when you pulled up.

    “Live” is definitely being influenced by Twitter. I’m assuming your brother’s call-out with the #Fringe hashtag was mean as a call to communal, simultaneous (if long distance) watching with other fans who would be able to interact about the show via Twitter. I think that “live” will start to take on this meaning based on simultaneous/communal virtual events, especially on Twitter.

    And notice your brother didn’t actually say/write “live TV,” just “watching live.”

    I don’t think “live TV” is being used much, unless it is specifically to clarify that it doesn’t mean DVR or other recorded shows. For example, the cell phone announcement said “live television broadcasts” (and I think “broadcasts” is as important a distinction here) because up until then there were just “videos” on phones, not broadcasts. I’m not very good at predicting, but I don’t think we’re very close to using “live TV” in this way.

  3. Sorry, to clarify: I think “watch live” will become common (meaning watch “together” as it is broadcast, with a social component) rather than “live tv.”

  4. The Ridger said

    I do know what you mean about the cluster of a- words; I teach them to my fundamentals of syntax students.

    And the button on my remote that takes me back to the broadcast (when I’ve paused it) says “live”. Plus the commericials for DVRs all talk about “pausing and rewinding live TV”…

  5. Glen said

    To clarify my Tweet, I was saying people should watch the show as it aired, without regard to whether they did so communally.

    Also, I’m not sure that ‘live’ in my Tweet was an adjective; it seems more like an adverb to me. I suppose it could be an adjective, along the lines of “Eat your food hot,” where ‘hot’ is an adjective describing the food’s condition. But it seems like it could also be an adverb, along the lines of “See it soon,” where ‘soon’ is adverb describing the manner or timing of how you should see it.

    • Neal said

      I think I’d call your use of live adjectival, as in the eat it hot example; I think the term I’m looking for is predicate accusative.

      @Thomas Sullivan: Yes, I glossed over the distinction between live as Glen used it and in the collocation live TV, but I think it’s the same adjectival meaning. However, if I did a search for phrases like watched it live, I wonder if I’d find earlier dates.

  6. Neal said

    Earliest hit in COCA for “[watch] it live” is from 2006:
    If networks create “appointment television” where new developments are hotly anticipated and talked over around the theoretical water cooler, viewers will be less likely to record an episode than watch it live.

  7. David Craig said

    Or then, maybe, they’re talking about <a href=" Live.

  8. EP said

    This has nothing to do with live TV, but one common mistake I have run into regularly here in Germany is the tendancy for Germans to refer to a live show as a “life show.” You’ll often see it on shop fronts, signs and posters. This is understandable, sort of, as v and f are pronounced the same here, but it still cracks me up all the same. Although, if you think about it, “life show” isn’t such a bad way to look at it.

  9. Buzz said

    I’m thinking we’ll see the more recently used “real-time” replace some of the occurences of “live.” Hopefully, only the ones that aren’t actually live (which, thanks to Ms. Jackson and Mr. Timberlake, means “approximately four to six seconds old”).

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