By Randee Dawn
On Sept. 3, truTV’s most successful series is going out on a limb. Or rather, a wire: In honor of its 100th episode, Impractical Jokers will air a live episode in which each of its four daredevils will attempt a high-wire walk five stories above New York City. Sure, it’s no Nik Wallenda and the Grand Canyon, but that hasn’t stopped it from lighting up social media as enthusiastic fans take bets on who’ll stay on the wire the longest. It’s truTV’s first attempt at live stunt programming, and as president and head of programming Chris Linn told Cynsiders, it’s a smart way for the network to test the waters, even as its stars test gravity.
Cynsiders: Why make Impractical Jokers‘ 100th episode live?
Chris Linn: The primary reason is to celebrate the 100th episode. It’s also an opportunity for the fans to celebrate the show, and for us to celebrate the fandom. There’s this really rabid following. So this was a way to elevate it beyond a typical episode. The show has this “punishment” element; we’ve done things like throw Murr out of a plane. That’s where the live stunt idea came from, all four guys doing something seemingly impossible – and what happens?
Cynsiders: But there’s an inside baseball reason for a live broadcast, too, right?
Linn: It generates buzz, and at a time when truTV is undergoing a significant rebranding, being loud about our most successful show will bring that buzz and attention. It’s also about the community experience that used to take place when people would watch TV. In a world of time-shifted viewing, that happens less and less and it takes some of the fun out of watching TV.
Cynsiders: Is a live stuntcast more valuable in terms of the ad dollars you can generate if viewers see it as-it-happens?
Linn: Unless it’s a regular thing that you can predict, if you have a pattern and can sell it way in advance, yes. We see this as an interesting experiment: A significant portion of the viewership is in time-shifted viewing for Jokers, so we want to see if we deliver a compelling live event how many people we can drive into live viewing. We’ll see how we move the needle. That’s one of the biggest challenges we have, creating appointment viewing. Live works for award shows and sports shows, but the question is: Can it be applied to other genres? If you can show there’s a pattern it becomes monetizable.
Cynsiders: It makes the ad buyers happy.
Linn: Yes, if you prove you have tentpoles and stunts, everyone’s happy. We’re not a network that’s known for that, and hidden camera prank shows are not known for being live, so I would love nothing more than to prove it works for us. If you’re offering fans something different, something they love with the added element of stakes – that can be valuable.
Cynsiders: By “stakes,” don’t you mean that people tune in to see if something will go wrong?
Linn: That’s part of it, but there’s the element of surprise. With the Jokers, there’s a big social debate over who will walk the farthest. We have a hashtag: #WhoWillWalkTheFarthest, so it’s fascinating to see that social engagement – there are surprising answers there. And on the day of the live event, people will be able to see in real time whether their predictions come true. It brings in the community experience.
Cynsiders: How much of this is about reaching millennial viewers, whose attention spans are divided and not always consistent?
Linn: Millennials have so many choices and options that a big part of our task is to find something that’s big, loud and interesting enough to make it appointment viewing. In addition to the voting, there’s an online preshow and aftershow where we’ll reflect the ongoing conversation – that’s an integrated portion of the whole special.
Cynsiders: Do you think we’ll be seeing more and more live TV specials?
Linn: Everyone’s trying to solve the problem of creating appointment television. Whether it’s a live musical on NBC or a live sitcom, everyone is trying to figure out what makes sense. But you want it to be organic. We have to be careful, because just because you make something live it’s not necessarily better. It has to have organic elements. This is all a brand experiment, in the end.
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