Can Neil Patrick Harris Put the Spark Back in Live TV?

His variety show, Best Time Ever, debuts Sept. 15

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Networks are embracing live programming this fall as a way of getting audiences to watch in real-time, even though recent attempts in the genre have had mixed results. Exhibit A: Knock Knock Live, Fox's live summer series, which was canceled after just two episodes this summer and made such a small impact that the host of broadcast's next new live series, Neil Patrick Harris, wasn't aware it ever existed.

"I didn't even know that it was on," said Harris, who hopes his new series, Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris, avoids the same fate. Kicking off Sept. 15, it is an eight-week live variety show that will incorporate a hybrid of variety acts, celebrity cameos, practical jokes and giveaways. 

"I love variety, and I was interested in the notion that I can show people at home—or an audience—cool, interesting things that are clever that you can set your remote down and watch," Harris said at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. The series is based on the U.K.'s Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway.

"I really think it will be fun, and I'm hoping a little bit game changing," said Harris, who was unprepared for the amount of prep work the show has required. Between taped elements and juggling the production's many moving parts, he said, "It's essentially producing six or seven shows simultaneously."

Harris said he insisted on the relatively brief eight-episode season because "I think something like this deserves to be a little bit of an event," likening it to when Cirque du Soleil visits a town. If the show is a success, "that gives us time to walk away" and fine-tune its Season 2 return, which would likely be next fall. "It was important for me to be able to do it as a chunk and then step back," he said.

Best Time Ever is one of many live plays NBC is making this fall. "That's what I think [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt has done so well is take this live idea and make it a reason to actually sit and watch something, and that adds its own spontaneity and uniqueness," said Harris.

Among the enticements for audiences to watch live: in-show giveaways. "If you watch the show from home, you might win $1,000," Harris said.

The show will also feature frequent celebrity appearances. Ricky Martin will sing "Livin' la Vida Loca" and challenge a viewer to complete the lyric to win a prize. Each week will feature a new celebrity guest announcer, starting with Reese Witherspoon.

It will be Harris' first time hosting a live TV event since the Oscars in March. 

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.