TV's Changing Landscape
'Patriotism is definitely in ... trash TV is out," says Gary Edgerton, who sees a discernable shift in what's on television since the tragedies of Sept. 11.Skip to next paragraph
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The changes may not last, he and other experts say, but for the moment, "audiences are gravitating toward the familiar and comfortable.... Everybody is loving 'Raymond' or loving 'Friends,' " says Professor Edgerton, chairman of the Communications and Theater Arts Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Though "Friends" depicts an impossible dream of intimacy among a small group of young adults who keep changing sexual partners among themselves, the kindliness of their friendships seems more pleasant than ever.
And the two biggest hits of the fall season were two servings of TV comfort food: a nostalgic Carol Burnett comedy special and the last game of the World Series.
"Audiences are going back to the tried and true," Edgerton says. "[They want] less spiteful programs." But he also cautions that this may be only a short-term effect. No one can predict how responsive television will remain to the Sept. 11 tragedies - or for how long.
Of course, ABC's "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" special (or was it a commercial?) in November proves that trash TV still lives in prime time.
"But in terms of the TV landscape, nastiness seemed to abate a bit," Edgerton says. Irony has always been a mainstay of humor and has helped debunk all kinds of nonsense, but on TV it had descended into simple-minded cheap shots. That seems to have moderated. Even the "queen of mean," Anne Robinson of the prime-time NBC game show "Weakest Link," has toned down somewhat, Edgerton says.
After the televised events of Sept. 11, "reality TV" doesn't look so real anymore.
"This is the genre that was specifically negatively affected," says John Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Withun, an advertising agency in Minneapolis. His job is to know which shows are hot - or not - and why.
Reality shows, he says, represent "a kind of reverse escapism - fleeing the good life for one that is harder. That began to look remarkably self-indulgent [after Sept. 11]. People were not coming together in a crisis, but driving each other apart."
Reality TV is a reflection of Americans' insular naiveté, Mr. Rash says, and America was suddenly jolted into a new global awareness on Sept. 11. Americans may have realized that some elements of American culture are beacons to the rest of the world, he says, but other elements advertise decadence. They may have seen the folly of looking like a bickering, self-indulgent, money-grubbing people - an image they may not want to project to the rest of the world, he says.
True reality "is what happened on Sept. 11," says Marc Berman, senior television writer at Mediaweek.com, which keeps tabs on ratings and trends. " 'Reality' [TV] took a major hit. 'Survivor' is still doing well, but it was the best one of the staged games. 'The Mole,' 'Temptation Island,' and 'Pop Stars' were D.O.A...."
The aftermath of Sept. 11, Mr. Berman points out, pushed back the new fall TV season a week or more. Some films were pulled from cable channels. The Emmy Awards show was postponed twice before it finally aired. ABC canceled the reality game show "The Runner" and pushed back the season première of the caustic, though hilarious, "The Job," in which Denis Leary played a hard-drinking, womanizing, rule-breaking New York cop.
CBS could not air the pilot episode of its new drama "The Agency" because its story line involved terrorism. That meant the show got off to a slow start because the first episode established the premise and the characters, Berman says.
Before Fox's innovative drama "24" premièred in November, a scene of a plane exploding in midair was cut. NBC dumped plans for a "Law & Order" miniseries about a terrorist attack on New York that would have featured the casts of all three of its popular series: "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit," and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
Still, NBC chief Jeff Zucker insists that NBC is not planning its programming with any special attention to Sept. 11. Of course, his network did air a special episode of "West Wing" - a smart, helpful civics lesson about America's relationship to the Middle East, told with a good deal of passion and a splash of condescension. And two weeks ago, the show's President Bartlet found himself confronting a mad-cow-disease crisis that could just as easily have been anthrax. And there was a special installment of "Third Watch," in which New York firemen told their own stories.