Fireworks on television have one job: To be beautiful.
So it's not exactly surprising that — when faced with the foggy, overcast weather in Washington on Monday night — producers of PBS's "A Capitol Fourth" concert and fireworks special edited the live broadcast to include stock footage of previously recorded fireworks, which showed a glorious display bursting in a clear sky. When viewers found out what they saw on TV didn't match what was happening on the National Mall, many of them did not take it well.
But why are people so angry? You're sitting on your couch and watching fireworks on television: Isn't the whole point to see something magical? Does it really matter whether what you're watching is live or not?
As it turns out, people have a lot of opinions about the topic, especially when they feel they're being misled —and when it's all so blatantly obvious. Within minutes, Washington residents started airing unhappiness on Twitter ("Not cool @pbs…. Fake footage of fireworks on the Fourth????") when they realized that the picture-perfect night sky on television was very different than what was outside. Plus, shots of the U.S. Capitol were suspiciously clear of construction scaffolding, which has been erected around the building for many months.
To those in charge of "A Capitol Fourth" (produced by Capital Concerts), the move made sense. Almost immediately after the broadcast, the "Capitol Fourth" Twitter account clarified that the show combined live footage with scenes from previous broadcasts, and called it "the patriotic thing to do." While a "Capitol Fourth" spokeswoman said that producers were unavailable for an interview on Tuesday, she confirmed that producers saw during the fireworks display that there was limited visibility, and they pivoted to feature previously recorded shows. She added this is the first time the show has taken such measures.
After seeing a steady stream of angry tweets late Monday night into Tuesday morning ("How is using stock video patriotic? If I wanted that, I'd watch YouTube"), producers offered an apology statement: "Because this year's fireworks were difficult to see due to the weather, we made the decision to intercut fireworks footage from previous 'A Capitol Fourth' concerts for the best possible television experience. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused."
From a TV perspective, of course producers want to use stunning fireworks: After all, NBC and CBS air competing specials at the same time, from New York and Boston, respectively. As a result, when a viewer sees country singer Cassadee Pope performing beneath of a muggy sky where you can barely see the fireworks (which is what happened during Monday's first segment), they're probably tempted to change the channel. Even host Tom Bergeron tweeted on Tuesday that the actual fireworks were unimpressive: "The real thing was pretty dull. Like shooting sparklers into pudding."
On the viewers' side, however, it just appeared very misleading — especially once Pope finished performing, and Bergeron said, "And now with the fireworks going off behind us, here are Jack Everly and the National Symphony Orchestra to perform Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture." The symphony started playing, though it was evident that the fireworks shown at that point in a cloudless sky were not the same ones exploding behind them.
John Irwin, a veteran TV producer who has produced NBC's "Macy's 4th of July" fireworks show in all kinds of weather, has sympathy for behind-the-scenes executives — after all, there's nothing quite like the stress of live television with millions watching.
"You're kind of making judgment calls on the fly," Irwin said. Still, he thinks the producers made the right call by going with stock footage after seeing how terrible the fireworks looked in the clouds. "From my perspective, the switchover was the right thing to do, for sure, because otherwise it's just a major bummer."
Overall, the biggest grievance from viewers seems to be that producers and PBS didn't give any kind of on-screen clarification about the "fake" fireworks, since the event was billed as live. And if there's one thing TV viewers won't stand for, it's any sense that someone is trying dupe them.
It's not the first time fireworks have led viewers astray: In 2011, CBS featured "digitally altered" fireworks during its Fourth of July special, and during Beijing's 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremonies, viewers also saw computer-generated images. In PBS's situation, Irwin said, the ideal scenario would be for producers to slap a "some portions pre-recorded" chyron on the screen.
"It's a very hard thing to do, especially when you're live in the moment and people are just making the best decisions they can," Irwin said. "You can't be too hard on them. They did the right thing, they just should have let people know."
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