1The live television murders that were also posted on social media by the perpetrator
In August 2015, a man who was fired from his job as a television reporter took revenge against a small-town Virginia news station by executing two of his former coworkers on live television. He then posted disturbing first-person documentation of the carnage on Twitter and Facebook, along with disturbingly matter-of-fact commentary.
Vester Lee Flanagan II, 41, fatally shot 24-year-old reporter Alison Parker and her camera operator, Adam Ward, 27. The two were filming a live segment for WDBJ, a CBS affiliate in Moneta, Virginia. After carrying out the shocking on-air execution, the gunman fled and posted video of the attack on social media from his point of view, while also writing about his grudges against the two young journalists.
Flanagan faxed a 23-page manifesto/suicide note to ABC outlining his motives for the attack. He had initially contacted the network's news division identifying himself as Bryce Williams, a journalist with a hot tip. He told the network “he wanted to pitch a story and fax information. He never told us what the story was,” stated the ABC News account.
Five hours later, police cornered Flanagan in Fauquier County, Virginia where he shot himself in an attempt to commit suicide. He initially survived the gunshot wound but died not long after.
2The first death ever witnessed by television cameras
The first on camera death occurred on June 23, 1938, when Marion Perloff jumped from the 11th floor of the Time and Life building in New York City.
Television was still very much in its infancy in the '30s, and there was not much in the way of programming. Engineers from RCA were working on improving TV technology in 1938, and were busy ramping up their efforts for what was hoped to be the medium's big coming out party at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
NBC cameraman Ross Plaisted was testing his video and audio equipment in Rockefeller Center when he spotted a 28-year-old woman descending from the 11th floor. He picked up the shot when she reached the 6th floor and followed her with his lens all the way down. A mic picked up the sounds of her hitting the ground and the gathering crowd's commotion after her leap.
The only people who saw the grisly images were NBC engineers sitting on the third floor of the RCA Building. Despite the fact that the incident wasn't broadcast to the public, the woman's tragic end was discussed as a dark milestone everywhere—from Time magazine to radio trade publications to newspapers throughout the U.S.
"Death for the first time flashed across a television screen," Time declared. And it wouldn't be the last.
3The terror attacks seen by millions that would forever change the world
September 11, 2001 started off like any other day. Morning shows were shutting things down for the day. Assignment desk editors were changing shifts, and general assignment reporters were preparing for news meetings.
That morning, as we now know, turned out very differently. In New York, the first plane hit World Trade Center's north tower at 8:46 a.m. The second plane the south tower at 9:03 a.m. 2,753 people died when terrorists intentionally crashed American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 into the towers, and most of it played out on live TV.
The events that unfolded on 9/11 drastically changed the world. Everything from airport security and immigration to domestic spying has been affected in some way since. But what about news reporting?
Most U.S. networks suspended all commercial advertising and entertainment programs and were on the air for days with uninterrupted coverage from the moment the first plane hit. To keep up with the constant flood of information, Fox News began running continuous updates in the form of a news ticker that crawled along the bottom of the screen. The ticker was so well received that it became a permanent feature of the channel and has since been adopted by many other news organizations. Coverage of the tragedy lasted for 90 continuous hours, with many networks not returning to regular programming until the following week.
Since then, the medium itself has changed. User-generated (“man on the street”) accounts are now more the norm than the exception, as are near-daily news segments on foreign affairs—specifically terrorism. Google has even credited 9/11 with forcing them to give more timely, up-to-the-minute search results. There are also endless websites focused on how to feed the public's insatiable appetite for news—an appetite that changed in a profound way on that fateful day.
4The first known murder seen live on television
At 12:20 p.m. on November 24, 1963, in the basement of the Dallas police station, Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, was shot to death by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner. Ruby gunned the triggerman down live on NBC.
Oswald was on his way to a more secure county jail. A crowd of police and press with live television cameras rolling gathered to witness his departure. As he came into the room, Ruby emerged from the crowd and fatally wounded Oswald with a single shot from a concealed .38 revolver. He was immediately detained and claimed that rage at Kennedy's murder was the motive for his actions.
CBS and ABC, which had been covering the procession of Kennedy's coffin to the U.S. Capitol, aired the killing later using videotape, a rarity at the time. Ironically, parading Oswald in front of TV cameras may well have given Ruby, who died while incarcerated in 1967, his chance. "Once you made [the transport of Oswald] into a media event,” Steven D. Stark, author of Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today, said, ”it was easy for Ruby to get inside.”
Ruby committed the first homicide ever aired live on U.S. TV. The haunting impact of Oswald's shooting and Kennedy's funeral, says Stark, "starts television on a course where it tends to become as much a part of the story as the story itself.”
5The felon whose suicide was broadcast live on Fox News
Carjacking suspect Jodon F. Romero shot himself in the head on live television after leading police on an hour-long, high-speed car chase in 2012 as Fox News viewers looked on in horror.
Fox was covering the chase using a live helicopter shot from Phoenix affiliate KSAZ-TV. Anchor Shepard Smith told viewers that the video was supposed to be on a delay so it could be cut off if something went awry. For whatever reason, that didn't happen, and the suicide went out live.
Smith, who was reporting as the camera followed the chase, repeated "Get off! Get off! Get off!" as he saw that Romero was about to take his life. Before the network could cut to commercial, Romero put the gun to his head and fired. After the break, Smith returned to the air and said, "It is insensitive, it is just wrong. And that won't happen again on my watch."
However, the damage was already done. Within hours of the incident, YouTube users across the nation had uploaded videos of Fox's enormous misstep.
In 2013, Fox was sued because of the “psychological trauma” inflicted on Romero's kids after they saw the video. His two older sons, aged 13 and 15, heard rumors that a suicide was broadcast live on television. When they watched the videos with friends from school, they realized "in horror" that they were watching their father.
The suit has since been dismissed. A Fox News lawyer said it was thrown out because “the network's coverage was protected by the First Amendment” and the plaintiffs were unable to “satisfy the essential elements” of proving intent in causing emotional distress.
6The NASA launch disaster that unfolded on live TV
On January 28, 1986, as millions watched, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight, ending the lives of the seven astronauts on board.
At least that's how people remember it.
In reality, few people actually saw what happened live on television. The flight occurred during the early years of cable news. Although CNN was indeed carrying the launch when the shuttle was destroyed, all major broadcast stations had cut away (at that point, space shuttle launches were hardly news)—only to quickly return with taped relays.
With Christa McAuliffe set to be the first teacher in space, NASA had arranged to broadcast the full mission into many schools via satellite. The public did not have access to this unless they were one of the then few people with satellite dishes. What most people recall as a "live broadcast" was a taped replay broadcast soon after the actual event.
7The man whose standoff and suicide on live TV preempted children's programming
Daniel Jones was a single man who lived alone and worked in maintenance at a Los Angeles hotel. In 1998, he found a lump in his neck and had been reliably informed it was cancer. He was also HIV positive.
Jones believed that he was being poorly served by his health insurance carrier. In one of the most graphic and bizarre events ever to unfold on live television, he parked his pickup truck on a busy freeway intersection, set it ablaze and then shot himself in protest.
The standoff began at 3 p.m on a Thursday afternoon at the start of the rush hour and in the middle of children's after school programming. The lurid coverage of Jones' actions on several television stations prompted calls from angry parents.
As the event played out, seven news helicopters hovered above, showing the whole thing live and in close-up. Afterward, news directors vowed to stick to medium shots. No one, however, stopped airing chases, and no one instituted a delay. A year and a half later, in November 1999, a pursuit ended when police shot the suspect to death. All Los Angeles affiliates showed it live.
8The comedian whose onstage death was initially thought to be part of his act
On April 15, 1984, millions tuned in to watch the hit variety show Live From Her Majesty's, only to see comedian Tommy Cooper suffer a fatal heart attack on stage. As he collapsed to uproarious applause from an audience who thought it was all part of his act, the 63-year-old Welsh comedy legend died as he had lived—making people laugh.
Cooper was in the middle of his famous magic cloak skit. Another comedian was behind the curtain passing him different props that he'd then appear to pull from inside his long flowing gown. Cooper never finished the routine. In the middle of the act, he dropped the floor and was sitting motionless and upright with his knees underneath him.
As time ticked on, both the audience and crew members started to realize something terrible had happened. The show went to a quick commercial break. Several seconds of blank screen followed as London Weekend Television's master control contacted regional stations to get them to start transmitting commercials. Meanwhile, back on stage, desperate efforts were being made to pull the curtain around Cooper's motionless 6'3" slumped frame.
The show continued with the remaining acts working in the limited space in front of the curtain. During a second commercial break, Cooper's body was moved to Westminster Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The footage of his death has since been uploaded to several video sharing sites.