In a move to inject new life into its kookiness, "30 Rock" is going live this week.
It will be the second such outing for the NBC comedy, which is normally a polished, single-camera filmed affair. It went live for a night in October 2010 with an episode performed during the show's normal time slot, then re-staged for West Coast viewers.
The same plan will be followed tonight: Originating from NBC's Studio 8H (fabled home of "Saturday Night Live"), "30 Rock" will air live for viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones at 8:30 p.m. EDT, then be reprised at 8:30 PDT for the rest of the country.
The theme of the episode plays into the idea of Live vs. Filmed. The Kabletown corporate bosses announce they will no longer pay for live production of "TGS" (the fictitious show-within-a-show produced by Liz Lemon, played by "30 Rock" star Tina Fey). After first resisting, Liz and NBC exec Jack Donaghy (co-star Alec Baldwin) realize their lives would be simplified by shooting "TGS" episodes on film, fast and cheap.
But Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) objects, arguing that nothing can replace the excitement of live television.
Time will tell.
"30 Rock" could use a little excitement. Although highly acclaimed and richly awarded during its six seasons, it has begun to lose the comic edge that set it apart. And, while never a ratings juggernaut, it has seen its audience further soften this season (just 3 million viewers tuned in last week).
Clearly, "30 Rock" could use a jolt. A stunt like going live is one way to score renewed attention and, perhaps, a boost in viewership.
In TV, live is a favorite way to shake things up.
"The Drew Carey Show" aired a live, improv-laced episode in 1999. Two years before that, "ER" staged an ambitious live hour of that medical drama.
The initial stab at live-ness by "30 Rock," while whipped into something of an event, was a mixed blessing: For better or worse, the episode reveled in the sort of sitcom cliches and cartoonish excess that "30 Rock" so brilliantly resists any other week.
Meanwhile, there were no memorable glitches or flubbed lines, which surely disappointed viewers who came hoping for a train wreck.
Live isn't just performing without a net. It can be a license for sloppiness in ideas and execution: Consider "Saturday Night Live," which too often comes across as the rough draft of a polished final product that will never be performed.
But live TV has taken on a mystique for both performers and viewers ever since video tape was invented during TV's infancy in the 1950s. The arrival of video tape made live production a bold choice and an exercise in daring -- rather than the bothersome necessity it had been before, when no alternative existed.
The arrival of video tape brought new convenience even to live broadcasts: A show that aired live in the East could be taped and replayed for later time zones.
This, of course, remains the practice for most live programming today, including most news shows (such as the morning programs and the dinner-hour newscasts) and even "Saturday Night Live." (The "SNL" cast is frolicking at the after-party by the time West Coast viewers catch the show, "live from New York," on tape.)
But "30 Rock" will play it old school tonight, with a fresh performance of the episode for the West Coast.
Just how fresh the episode is remains to be seen.