While in 2016 the idea of “seeing is believing” has taken on new heights in an age where everyone has a camera, if it’s not recorded now, it might as well have never happened. This only represents part of the truth, however, as our relationship with live television or news footage in general has overall shifted.
Back in the 1970s, towards the final years of the Vietnam War, much of the combat and scenes of carnage were showcased in brutal color. Some people said this is one of the major reasons why the American people never supported the war. When the United States invaded Iraq for the second time, the only images we saw on mainstream news sites were images of flashing lights during the first night, and not much else. By the end of that initial campaign, news media didn’t even show the returning coffins. The only image, which was highlighted and disputed as to how much truth lay behind it, that became truly emblematic, was the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue.
With time delays and multi-cams, it’s rare these days that something will truly unfold on live TV that is truly horrific. Following live events now happens through activism, many of whom believe the revolution will be showcased via live streaming technology. As news gives way to branding, and branding gives way to advertisers, showing images that might offend some viewers becomes increasingly less of a priority. Even while news sites will report around the clock on tragedies like Sandy Hook, they will recycle the same ten minutes of footage – none of which says anything at all.
This list features events that were creepy or disturbing and unfolded live across people’s television events. In most cases, the broadcaster really had no idea what was unfolding or else they might have pulled the plug. What are some of the creepiest or weirdest things you’ve seen on live TV?
15. Comedian Tommy Cooper Dies
Tommy Cooper was a British comedian and magician known for a cigar hanging off his lip and a fez hat rocking on his outstretched hair. Lit with vivid expressions, his long face made him a perfect vehicle for broad humour and unexpected gags he would infuse into his magical shows. So, in April 1984, when he appeared on live television in the UK for a magical act, his assistant and the audience just assumed it was all a part of the act when he suddenly collapsed on stage. In front of an audience of millions, Cooper got up to perform a trick with props and when he fell down to his knees, audiences around the country burst into laughter. It was all a part of the show, they thought. When it became apparent that something was wrong, the music started to queue but it was too late. Tommy Cooper had suffered a fatal heart attack in front of an audience of millions of laughing people. The video occasionally resurfaces on YouTube but is often quickly pulled down.
14. The LA Riots
The L.A. Riots were a series of riots initiated by the videotaped violent arrest of Rodney King, by the LAPD police. Over the course of five days in late April 1992, people took to the streets of Los Angeles to loot, set fire and cause civil disorder due to the well-documented incident of police brutality and corruption. With an estimated property damage of over $1 billion dollars, the incidents took place all over television, predating the street protests of Ferguson by two decades. Throughout the five days of unrest and violence, the media took to the streets to bring the riots into the homes of Americans. The focus being on the violence and acts committed specifically against the Korean immigrants usurping nearly all focus from the outraged response about the acquittal of the police officers who had viciously beat Rodney King. While over a decade removed from the live protests of the anti-war counterculture and civil rights movements of the 1970s, the moment on time felt like a revival of old fears for a new age.
13. Lee Harvey Oswald Assassination
To this day many people believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a lone wolf assassin but either part of a larger conspiracy, or an unfortunate scapegoat for a much larger government hit. One of the biggest elements of the conspiracy has to do with Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination, which appeared on live television in 1964. Handcuffed and headed to the county jail, a nightclub operator Jack Ruby, got up close and personal and fired directly into Oswald’s abdomen. Less than two hours later, Oswald was declared dead. Still reeling from the death of their president, Americans all over the country were watching this scene unfold live, and it’s estimated that millions were watching at the time. The conspiracy goes that Oswald had to be killed in front of an audience, so no one would become suspicious of any government figures who may have been involved lest Oswald talk. A public death meant no question as to what happened.
12. Fugitive Jordan F. Romero Shoots Himself
Nothing says good television like a good old fashioned car chase! So when Arizona fugitive Jordan F. Romero was on the run from the cops, Fox News picked up the story. Following a stolen Dodge Caliber, Megyn Kelly and Shepard Smith started to cover the event. The footage would ebb in and out, but the pair followed the action. Just a few years after O.J.’s car chase, news channels knew that chases like these were reliable for an audience. People liked the intrigue because it always seems certain the culprit will be caught, but they want to know how. So, as Shep Smith is following the action with his special brand of color commentary, he isn’t puzzled when Romero pulls into a field and gets out of the car. About thirty seconds before they cut the sound, Smith says, “Now this scares me. What are you doing out in the middle of nowhere, getting out of the car?” Not long afterward, Romero shoots himself in the head on the live broadcast, and in a whispered tone you can hear a muffled call to cut the broadcast, “get off! Get off it!”
11. Manila Bus Hostage Crisis
In 2010, unfolding on live television, a bus of Hong Kong tourists were held hostage in Manila, the city capital of the Philippines. The entirety of the siege lasted over ten hours, with most of the negotiations between the hostage takers and police unfolding all before a rapt international audience. As far as the United States on CNN, viewers were tuning in with the hopes that the whole crisis would end peacefully: unfortunately it did not. The live television reports actually ended up dooming the whole scenario, as one of the hostage-takers after witnessing the arrest of his brother on the live broadcast broke down the negotiations and quickly turned on the remaining hostages. After a gun battle that lasted an hour and a half, the hostage taker Rolando Mendoza and eight hostages were killed. The reason for the hostage-taking in the first place was that Rolando Mendoza felt he was dismissed unfairly from his job as a National Police Officer and wanted someone to listen to his complaints. The Hong Kong government was heavily critical of the Filipino government’s dealing with the crisis.
10. The 2011 Japanese Tsunami
Watching live as that first Tsunami wave began to engulf the coast of Japan, you could easily believe you were tuning into a post-apocalyptic environmental dystopia like The Day After Tomorrow. With an aerial panoramic view that seemed to encompass acres of land, the wave seemed to move eerily slow on television as it swept away anything that wasn’t firmly tied down. While just a few years earlier these kinds of images would not even seem possible to be broadcast to the whole world, it has soon become a horrific reality. The world which once seemed so large suddenly felt intimate and small. While these moments were being broadcast, we got the first hints that something was going wrong at The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the true gravity of the event began to take hold. 16,000 people died as a result of the natural disaster.
9. Dale Earnhardt’s Fatal 2001 Crash
If you don’t follow NASCAR you might not be aware that it’s among the most watched sports in the United States, and Dale Earnhardt was one of its biggest stars. In 2001 during the last lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s car was tapped from behind sending his car crashing into a wall. Earnhardt never regained consciousness and died hours later. In the endless replays of the incident, TV producers could not have guessed that the 49-year-old legend known as ‘The Intimidator’, was taking his last breaths, but it certainly casts a dark shadow on the whole event. Earnhardt, of course, is not the only athlete to sustain fatal injuries or die on the field, but he is perhaps the most famous.
8. Murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward
In the early morning of August 26, 2015, two reporters were murdered on live television at 6:45am. Alison Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward, were conducting a live interview that morning for the 50th anniversary of Smith Mountain Lake when suddenly eight shots are heard and the camera drops. For a moment the perpetrator holding a Glock 19 9mm pistol is shown on the scene. Both reporters died on scene. What later unfolded was a manhunt that lasted 5 hours as the police were in pursuit. The chase ended when the murderer Vester Lee Flanagan II, shot himself in the head. Flanagan had formerly worked at the station and had been fired years earlier for disorderly conduct. Apparently difficult to work with and emotionally volatile, he lashed out so violently when he was fired that the police had to be called in to escort him out. He claimed that he was fired due to racial discrimination and blamed Parker and Ward for him losing his job.
7. The Fiery Waco Siege
The Waco Siege was a government sanctioned siege on a compound in Waco, Texas, run by the religious group called the Branch Davidians. Considered by some a cult, the initial siege was caused because of rumours that the Branch Davidians were holding a substantial amount of equal weapons, leading the Federal and State government to intervene. What resulted was a stand-off between members of the Branch Dividians and government officials that lasted a total of 51 days. While most of this was unfolding on live television, due to the fact that there were no cameras inside the ranch compound, to this day there are a number of big questions surrounding the event. A huge fire that engulfed parts of the compound, in particular, have long been debated, as some claim the government officials started the fire that ended the siege. Over the course of the nearly two-month stand-off, 76 people died including the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh. The aftermath of the event cannot be overemphasized, as the Oklahoma City bomber cited Waco as one of the primary reasons for his terrorist’s attacks claiming the government intervention on their private land was proof that the government had been overstepping their grounds.
6. Massacre At The Munich Games
Among the earliest entries on this list, live television was not as easily done before the 1980s outside of a studio. Held in Munich, Germany during the 1972 Munich Games, a terrorist group known as Black September, held hostage and killed Israeli soldiers. Representing the interests of Palestine, the group had initially hoped to have a number of prisoners freed but things quickly went south. One of the earliest examples of a live broadcast of a hostage crisis, the way that the news reporters framed their coverage gave up far too much information to the hostage-takers, who used their own television broadcast in the hotel room where they were to better understand police strategies. Unlike some of these broadcasts where you don’t see much, through the hotel windows camera people were able to capture some disturbing images, including men being hit in heads with AK-47s. The attempts to free the Israelis went badly in part due to the hostage-takers being well informed and due to errors on part of the rescuers. All eleven athletes were murdered.
5. Daniel Jones Commits Suicide
On April 30, 1998, at around 3:00pm an incident was unfolding on the Los Angeles freeway. Live television cameras were on target of a freeway chase, gripped with what might happen next – but they could have never predicted what would unfold. The chase first caught attention as fellow motorists began to call into police that an erratic driver was pointing his shotgun at fellow drivers. During the middle of the evening commute, Daniel Jones, who had been driving his pickup truck, parked his car in the middle of the busy freeway and blocked traffic. He unraveled a banner protesting HMOs (organizations that provide assistance for life insurance) and set his truck on fire before he shot himself in the head. The headline for the LA Times the next day read, “Man Kills Self as City Watches.” Jones, who was suffering from HIV, had been having a hard time securing care and clearly felt like he had no more options than to die as his last act of protest. The headline for the LA Times the next day read, “Man Kills Self as City Watches.”
4. Challenger Spacecraft Explosion
On January 28, 1986, NASA launched the Space Challenger Shuttle Craft with seven crew members on board. Launched off the coast of Florida at 11:59am, the craft fell apart and began to disintegrate 73 seconds into the launch. Not only was this broadcast on live television, it was not uncommon at the time that live science-related events would be shown in classrooms all over the country to students. One of the most publicized launches in over a decade, The Challenger was especially remarkable because it was sending a civilian up to space, a school teacher Christa McAuliffe, from New Hampshire would be on board. It has been estimated that as much of 17% of the entire American population had been watching it live on television. Due to the amount of young people watching, the moment resonated in pop culture and shows targeted to young people like Punky Brewster, attempted to reassure the audiences about the event.
3. Live Footage Inside Columbine
Just about everyone knows how much Columbine changed America. One of the most gruesome and broadcasted events of carnage committed by a mass shooter, Columbine is still synonymous with school shootings. Back in 1999 when the events took place, camera crews quickly descended on the scene as soon as news broke out that violence was happening at the high school. Most of the footage that took place was outside of the school, with students running around, and being evacuated. They killed 12 students and one teacher. Along with the live footage, in recent years, security footage of the pair inside the school has surfaced online.
2. Reporter Christine Chubbuck Commits Suicide
It is believed that all the footage of TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, committing suicide during a 1974 broadcast, has been lost, but her legend lives on. A television reporter in Florida, on July 15th, 1974, Christine Chubbuck insisted she had a breaking report to read on the air during the morning show, much to the surprise of her co-workers, but they gave her the time. Reporting on a shooting at a restaurant, the footage she was screening suddenly jammed. Chubbuck made a bizarre joke, saying “blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide,” when she pulled out a gun and shot herself in the back of the ear. She died. Apparently, Chubbuck had been suffering from depression and it wasn’t the first time she had tried to kill herself. In weeks leading up to the event her co-workers reported bizarre behavior as she joked about shooting herself on live television and also asked for special permission to cover a story about suicide. In 2016, a documentary that integrates extensive reconstructions called ‘Kate Plays Christine’, has been released to acclaimed reviews.
1. The September 11 Attacks
The plane hitting the first tower might not have unfolded on live television, but the second one did. An already horrific moment that was likely already being written off as a freak accident took on nightmarish implications, as it became all too quickly apparent that this was a deliberate attack. As terrifying as the actual footage was, the fact that everything was unfolding live and the reporters were as broken up as we were, was chilling. Most didn’t even notice as the second plane entered the airspace of the second tower; it was only when it crashed into it that people started screaming. The event itself not only unfolded live, but because of the sheer scale of the event, was able to be screened again and again, and again.