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!