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Why we still get excited about live TV

On Thursday night, Shanice Williams will be either a star or another casualty of the snark-infested waters of social media.

Stephanie Mills (left) portrays Auntie Em and Shanice Williams plays Dorothy in "The Wiz Live!" on NBC at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Stephanie Mills (left) portrays Auntie Em and Shanice Williams plays Dorothy in "The Wiz Live!" on NBC at 8 p.m. Thursday.Read moreVirginia Sherwood / NBC

On Thursday night, Shanice Williams will be either a star or another casualty of the snark-infested waters of social media.

Williams is the completely untested lead of The Wiz Live!, NBC's third TV foray into live musical theater, airing at 8 p.m. The Peacock has tried the live musical gambit twice already. Carrie Underwood donned a habit for The Sound of Music, and Allison Williams donned green tights for Peter Pan - and they brought in droves of viewers in an increasingly fractured landscape where "event TV" ain't what it used to be.

We're still thrilled by the live event, something TV has been good at since its birth. Awards shows, sports, reality competitions, Saturday Night Live, or, say, performances of 1970s musicals - if it's live, we still show up for the shared experience.

More and more, networks are betting on the fascination of the event that happens as you watch, the tension of tightrope walking without a net. Fox will offer its own live musical with Grease, featuring Dancing with the Stars alum Julianne Hough and Broadway vet/Graceland star Aaron Tveit. These networks continue to bank on the idea that audiences used to watching shows whenever they want will still get excited about the unknown.

And Williams is entirely unknown. The 18-year-old had into her first professional audition six months ago and will now play Dorothy, stepping into the sparkly red pumps of Broadway star Stephanie Mills and all-around legend Ms. Diana Ross, who inhabited the part before her onstage and onscreen, respectively. In The Wiz, you don't follow the road; you ease on down. It's a different direction for NBC, although it gives the network an opportunity to tap into black pop culture in a way other musicals can't. Joining Williams is Mary J. Blige as Dorothy's nemesis, the Wicked Witch; Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) as Glinda; Queen Latifah as the Wizard; and pop star Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, among others.

And we'll either love Williams or tear her to shreds.

Part of the draw of live TV is that it is social and critical. It's fun to watch things with other people. Movies have had this concept down since the Lumière brothers scared the daylights out of some French people with moving images of a train in 1895 - it's just that much more fun to be scared with others. But if you can't watch with other people, there's a built-in audience as close as your laptop. That social universe is extended with the second screen experience - sending out funny missives on Twitter or Facebook while watching a beloved show. Presto: an instant audience with whom to react. Both The Sound of Music and Peter Pan topped Nielsen's Twitter ratings, with 449,000 and 475,000 tweets per broadcast.

All that in turn brings on criticism, likes and dislikes, and loves ready to clash. Campy and overblown, musical theater and awards shows lend themselves perfectly to the social-media Greek chorus. They also inspire passion, outrage, and glee, much as sports do. It's happening in the moment, and we're all there to witness it.

Though Twitter and Facebook can make live TV even more social, much TV watching today is antisocial. The community that TV once created has dissipated. We need not be on the same timetable anymore. Some of us watch quickly and some slowly. That means we're stuck in this spoiler-alert culture. If we have seen something the moment it comes out, we have to avoid discussing it in front of those who haven't. (Want to talk about Sunday's The Walking Dead? Shh! Your coworker hasn't watched it yet.) And if we happen to be slowpokes, we know the agony of Feeling Left Behind. (Didn't watch all of Netflix's Jessica Jones last weekend? Sorry, sucks to be you, the rest of the Internet already binged it.)

Today, live events are the now-rare occasions we TV viewers still have to show up at the same time. At the same time, all together, we behold Williams belting out her first note, or whatever magical vocal stylings Blige has planned.

And because the show and our reactions are live in real time, we have the sense, illusory or not, that we are participating as well as beholding. We're not just sitting at home, eating popcorn and watching the Oscars or the Phillies or Williams making her television debut; we have an active role in these shows as well.

Sometimes, we really do. Dancing with the Stars ended its season last week, with Bindi Irwin taking home the 21st (!) mirror ball. Before Irwin and Derek Hough did a heartbreaking number honoring Irwin's late Crocodile Hunter father, ABC announced that the next cycle of DWTS will premiere in March. Though DWTS isn't the powerhouse it used to be, it does have a live voting component, as do its reality-ratings juggernaut cousin American Idol (which starts its final season in January) and the consistently popular The Voice. In our increasingly democratized media landscape, where everyone gets a say, that's a super-powerful card to give the audience. We show up because we get to play, too.

Granted, we don't get to vote Williams off The Wiz if she cracks a note or flubs a line, but we know there's a powerful potential for surprise.

And that will always be the best part of live TV, that something could happen no one is expecting and we'll be there to see it. Sports is full of these moments. Award shows - particularly the Golden Globes, where celebrities are allowed to get drunk - are perfect vehicles for them as well.

To get their audience to watch live, networks run house advertisements with can't-miss twists and major shockers or reveals in their prime-time shows. No element of surprise there. It's not as fun when we know something terrible is going to happen to Derrick Shepard on Grey's Anatomy, or that we'll find out who shot Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder (the shows in Shonda Rhimes' empire use this marketing tool all the time).

But when it's live, we know that something incredible or terrible or shocking could happen - but not whether it will for sure, or when. We still need to tune in to find out.