12/16/2013 09:37 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

How The Sound of Music Revived Live Television

NBC's live broadcast of the musical The Sound of Music last week attracted 18.5m people. This was a larger audience than NBC has had for any non-sports event since the finale of the TV show Frasier 9 years ago. This was a three-hour, 50-year-old Broadway musical!

What's happening here? This is not about musicals and Carrie Underwood's (reportedly) weak acting. The Sound of Music's success underscores the fact that in today's real-time social media world, the unique characteristics of live offer big benefits over pre-taped or on demand programming -- and media companies are just beginning to see and harness this powerful opportunity.

Networks have long been aware of the power of live when it pertains to big sports events and breaking news. The Super Bowl sells out its ad inventory earlier and earlier at bigger and bigger prices every year. The big event and real-time nature drive massive viewership and, therefore, massive ad revenue. Nobody watches the Super Bowl the day after it airs.

In an on-demand world where practically every show or video created is available to you on any device at any time, the real time and synchronous viewing nature of live sets it apart. This is only amplified when you combine live video with the Internet, creating a perfect combination of immediacy and interactivity. The beauty of live TV is that viewers can chatter on Internet platforms while watching, which serves to drive even more viewers to the live program.

Real time activity is what has driven the popularity of Twitter and numerous messaging apps like SnapChat and Instagram. And while companies like creativeLIVE are driving live video forward on the Internet with educational content (now on 5 channels and broadcasting 24/7), the trend is for regular old TV to have more and more live programming.

When TV was born over 80 years ago, it could only be watched live. But until recently, live had largely disappeared outside of entertainment events, sporting events, and reality competition shows (and of course, Saturday Night Live). So why did it take a 50-year old musical to revive live?

Credit NBC who brought a beloved, well-known musical back to life and presented it as an event. How? They partnered with iTunes to produce a soundtrack, they released "making of" videos in advance of the broadcast, and execs repeatedly played up the "anything could happen" nature of live and the anxiety of the cast. This focus on the cast's ability to carry the classic musical played to voyeuristic inclinations. Live broadcast forces its stars to be laid bare, flaws and all.

But even with that solid marketing, timing is everything. Just a few years ago, Twitter and other real time social channels didn't exist. Not only did The Sound of Music attract over 18 million people to the broadcast, but there were over five million people interacting with it on Twitter. Real time social media activity is where the real credit may be due.

Not surprisingly, days after The Sound of Music aired, NBC announced plans to do another live broadcast of another musical. And no doubt execs at other media companies were buried in Tweets (or maybe plain old emails) pushing them to replicate the success NBC had.

Thanks to the Internet, live TV is back!